Trump’s pick as labor secretary: Legalizing immigrants is ‘the right thing to do’

Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Labor strongly defended immigration reform in remarks several years ago and also criticized border security as a waste of money and overly intrusive — positions that put him at odds with the president-elect’s campaign promises to crack down on immigration.

Andrew Puzder, CEO of the fast-food chain conglomerate CKE Restaurants, said that passing immigration reform that offered a path to legalization for many of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country was “the right thing to do” and would boost the economy, in a question-and-answer session organized by conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute in 2013.

Puzder’s belief that immigration reform could be an economic boon was once firmly implanted in the Republican mainstream, with Republicans willing to join a bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform as recently as 2013. But the victory of Trump, who campaigned on building a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and said that Mexico has sent “rapists” to the United States, demonstrated that the Republican base rejects that thinking.

“If we had immigration reform and were able to hire these people who really want to work, we’d have a more diverse, incentivized and productive workforce,” Puzder said in 2013. “You’d really reinforce this idea that the United States is the land of opportunity, the land of entrepreneurial vision — and that could use some reinforcing.”

Puzder said that his fast-food chain’s workforce in California, where a greater share of employees were Latino, was more productive and motivated than some of his employees in other areas of the country.

“Our Hardee’s restaurant operators in the Midwest and Southeast often use the labor force in California as an example of what they would like their labor force to be,” Puzder said. “They’re very hard-working, dedicated, creative people that really appreciate the fact that they have a job —whereas in other parts of the country, you often get people that are saying, ‘I can’t believe I have to work this job.’ With the immigrant population, you always have the ‘Thank God I have this job’ kind of attitude. So, you end up with a real different feeling.”

Puzder stressed that this observation was a “gross generalization” and that many people of all races and backgrounds were grateful to have a job.

The CEO didn’t just argue that immigration reform would boost the economy, but also that it was the moral choice. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s the country that we are, it’s the people that we are, and we need to foster that image across the world and in the United States.”

Puzder also praised E-Verify, which allows employers to ensure they are only hiring people who are authorized to work in the country. “E-Verify is actually very, very helpful to business owners who really just want to comply with the law,” he said.

What Puzder singled out for criticism was the emphasis on border security in the GOP-authored immigration reform bill at the time. The bill proposed doubling the number of Border Patrol agents at the time to 40,000. “As an American — not as a CEO, but as an American, it does bother me a little bit for a couple reasons,” he said. “One is, as a conservative and a Republican, we’re trying to keep the deficit down — this is another $40 billion in spending, which you hate to see. And secondly, I don’t know when it became a conservative Republican principle that increasing the size and intrusiveness of the government is a good thing.” He pointed add that the number of people attempting to cross the border illegally was down dramatically from its height in the 1990s.

Trump’s pick for the Department of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly, will have far more to do with enforcing immigration law than Puzder will. But as Dara Lind at Vox points out, the Labor Department is in charge of making sure employers who use foreign workers are complying with the law. Puzder’s agency would lead any investigations into companies’ potential abuse of H1-B visas, for example, which are meant to go to skilled foreign workers when employers’ can’t find native workers to fill the slots.

Immigration hardliners objected to the choice of Kelly to lead DHS on Wednesday, although they hold out hope that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who designed laws to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants, will be picked as his deputy.

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