PHOENIX - State and local governments that have enacted immigration laws are threatening the existence of some businesses and instead should let the federal government confront the problem in a way that keeps the American economy supplied with labor, a national business leader said Wednesday.
Thomas Donohue, chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he understands the frustration communities feel about the social costs of illegal immigration, but their approaches are unconstitutional and fail to recognize the economy's growing need for more workers.
"A fundamental purpose in creating an effective, rational and national immigration system should not be to stop the flow of immigrants to our country, but rather to continue it - and I am sorry to say to some people - to expand it," Donohue told about 75 business people in Phoenix.
As immigration overhaul proposals have collapsed in Congress over the last two years, states and local governments have passed laws that seek to confront immigration woes, including efforts to keep employers from hiring illegal immigrants.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is among a group of businesses and industry associations challenging a new Arizona law barring businesses from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
The law, set to take effect in January, also requires businesses to verify the employment eligibility of their workers through a federal database.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that illegal immigrants account for one in 10 workers in Arizona's economy.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tougher immigration enforcement, said the viewpoint pushed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is undercutting legal American workers, because illegal immigrants accept lower wages.
"The effect will be erosions of the middle class in the United States," said Mehlman, who didn't attend Donohue's speech.
Donohue said it makes more sense to grant some sort of legal status to illegal immigrants than to deport them and then try to keep up with the country's growing labor needs.
"This economy is working because we have them, and if you want to take them away - round them up and send them home - it will be the loudest sucking sound you have ever heard," Donohue said.
Letting communities make their own immigration policies will create a patchwork of regulations that would make operations harder on businesses with locations across the country or region, he said.
"How do you run your business when everybody else has a different law?" Donohue asked.
Donohue said the numerous state and local immigration efforts underscore the need for Congress to broadly overhaul the country's immigration laws.