Chamber News

Needham / Newton
January 10, 2020 Likes Comments

Business owners make their case for protecting foreign-born workers

Immigration Panel

Seana Gaherin and her partner Bobby Dunn have run Dunn Gaherin’s Food & Spirits, in Newton, for 28 years, with a staff made up mainly of immigrants. And it’s this staff, who stand out for their work ethic and dedication, that have helped make the pub a beloved gathering place.

So it pains Gaherin, as a first-generation American herself, to see people she loves and respects treated “as second-class citizens…only because they are not born in this country.”

“That’s why I’m here today,” she told a roomful of legislators and staff: “to tell you more about that and how much I rely and depend on those people. Not only are they my friends and family, but they’re my cohorts… my business would not survive without them.”

Gaherin was one of three business owners and members of the Massachusetts Business Immigration Coalition (MBIC) who went to the State House on Nov. 6 for a legislative briefing on the business case for state legislation to protect immigrant families – in particular, the Safe Communities Act.

The panel, moderated by Andrew Tarsy, who has worked with MIRA to build the new coalition, also included Larry O’Toole of Gentle Giant Movers, and Meg Glazer of Glacon Contracting.

MBIC was launched in October 2018 and has grown to more than 70 members, including the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber and TripAdvisor, with more joining every week.

Businesses are often assumed to be motivated only by self-interest, Tarsay said, but they care about their workers and their customers – and they are integral parts of our communities.

The bill sponsors, including Newton State Rep. Ruth Balser along with Rep. Liz Miranda and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, emphasized the urgency of passing the Safe Communities Act. Though many cities and towns have adopted welcoming policies, Eldridge said, Massachusetts needs “a statewide, clear policy” that sends a message to immigrants that law enforcement is not helping Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Business owners too…want to know that their employees can get to work without being worried about getting pulled over by the police and somehow they end up getting entangled,” Eldridge said

The three panelists echoed that view, describing a climate of fear that affects all immigrants, no matter their legal status.

“It’s immoral,” said Gaherin, who is also on the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber’s Board of Directors. Immigration processes are “crazy” difficult, immigrants who fall out of status find it prohibitively expensive to get their papers back in order, even naturalized citizens are afraid of any missteps. “The courage to call and seek out counsel is almost impossible for some of these people.”

A Salvadoran-born worker on her team, now a U.S. citizen, got a jury duty notice and came pleading for help. “He said, ‘Seana, can you please fill this out for me? You have to tell them I don’t speak English well enough. I’m too afraid.’”

O’Toole, an Irish immigrant, said his $45 million company struggles to meet its labor needs. About 40–50 percent of his workers are foreign-born, he said, and they are “absolutely key to our existence.” They live in communities where many people lack lawful status, and many have family members without papers. Yet “there’s so many obstacles put in their path” that obtaining status is very difficult, so “they have to live in terror all the time as to what might happen if there’s a traffic incident or something.”

“It really needs to stop, because people are afraid to go to the doctor, for instance, afraid to seek help in any way, because they’re terrified of what might happen to them,” O’Toole added. “These are great, law-abiding people who really contribute to this economy, and people without whom businesses like ours couldn’t even survive… So I feel passionately about the Safe Communities Act… it’s just common human decency.”

Glazer, whose company books about $25–30 million per year in new housing construction contracts, started by noting that is central to Massachusetts’ economic prosperity. One in five workers here is an immigrant, she said, as well as one in five entrepreneurs.

“Overwhelmingly in the construction industry, it is an immigrant population,” Glazer said. “I depend on the workers to report things that they don’t feel are safe,” she said. “If a person is working with a harness, and that harness is frayed and they don’t want to report it because they’re afraid… that’s a problem. People will go to great lengths not to bring attention to themselves if they feel that it’s going to bring an ICE raid to their home or to their job site. So they may not report a dangerous situation.”

“By not having something in place like the Safe Communities Act, we will shoot ourselves in the foot and then we’ll shoot our other foot and then we’ll become incapacitated.”

 

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