SALEM &

Oregon restaurants, nurseries and other businesses are joining the gnarly immigration debate, fighting proposals they see as hostile to foreign-born workers and their families.




The Oregon Essential Worker Immigration Coalition is planning a February launch of research and lobbying efforts to add their voices to a debate largely dominated by opponents of illegal immigration and by Hispanic and immigrant advocate groups.




Jeff Stone, a co-chairman, said agriculture, construction, food service, hospitality and other sectors want to give Congress room to fix the federal immigration system.




In part, that means curbing state and local laws that limit employers' ability to rely on foreign workers, said Stone, who oversees governmental relations for the Oregon Association of Nurseries.




"The problem with the folks who want to see some sort of sensible solution to immigration is that we have not done a very good job articulating that voice and that's what we need to change," he said.




One such restriction takes effect Feb. 4 and limits Oregon driver's licenses to those who can prove they are in the country legally through a verifiable Social Security Number or other legal residency documents.




The Legislature's February session probably will make the rules state law, which could end the question of whether Gov. Ted Kulongoski exceeded his authority by calling for the new regulations.




The law also would put Oregon in compliance with the federal Real ID Act, so that Oregonians can use their licenses as identification to board commercial flights and enter certain federal buildings.




Hispanics say they need licenses to drive and obtain car insurance.




Kulongoski has suggested a second-tier "driving only" card that would verify a holder's identity and driving qualifications but would not prove legal residence, a move immigrant rights advocates and Hispanic groups have said they can support.




The immigrant worker coalition agrees, but Stone said the group was unlikely to push for it in the short February session.




"I don't think that bill's time is right. It inflames too many people, frankly," he said.




The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2006 that undocumented workers made up 5 percent of the national work force but 12 percent of construction workers and 10 percent of those working in the leisure and hospitality fields.




Oregon state labor economist Art Ayre said his analysis of 2000 census data found that 19 percent of Oregon's agricultural and food sector workers were noncitizens.




Ayre said those figures probably have changed and may not have accounted for all noncitizens in Oregon at that time.




Ramon Ramirez, president of Oregon's farm workers' union, said he was eager for employers to voice their concerns over anti-immigration proposals.




"You've been seeing mostly the traditional Latino, immigrant-right activists," he said. "Now you're seeing business, which I think means the politicians are going to have to listen."




Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said employers relying on undocumented workers may argue that they're trying to keep Oregon's economy strong while acting out of self interest.




"They want to have cheap labor, no matter the cost to society," he said. "They want to undercut wages in order to maximize their profits."