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UUA spurs corporate leaders to demand new immigration policy

Institutional investors call reform a human rights and business imperative.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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Tim Brennan

UUA Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Tim Brennan.

Aiming to spur greater corporate involvement in the reform of U.S. immigration policy, the Unitarian Universalist Association, along with more than 60 institutional investors, is urging the CEOs of leading American companies to speak out for immigration policy reform.

The group of investors, representing more than $145 billion, issued a letter on February 23 urging CEOs to speak out publicly in support of reform that includes a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants. The letter suggests that companies post their support on their websites and in other corporate publications.

The initiative was spearheaded by Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer of the UUA. He said the religious witness events in Phoenix, Ariz., in July 2010 prompted leaders of the UUA to think about how they could apply their shareholder advocacy to the immigration issue. During the July 2010 protests, more than 150 Unitarian Universalists gathered to protest Arizona’s strict anti-illegal immigration laws, and 29 people, including UUA President Peter Morales, were arrested for their civil disobedience.

Brennan convened the first meeting of the group’s original investors in September 2010. Among the original group that crafted the initiative were officials with Walden Asset Management, Mercy Investment Services, Boston Common Asset Management, and New York City Comptroller John C. Liu.

The letter, signed by representatives of labor unions, investment firms, and faith-based investors, calls immigration reform a “human rights and business imperative.” It urges companies to speak out “in favor of a comprehensive immigration policy, including a pathway for currently unauthorized immigrants to earn legal status. Recognizing the historic and ongoing importance of immigrants in creating a prosperous U.S. economy, we are deeply troubled by the contentious public debate that is stifling progress on an issue that should rise above partisanship. A successful outcome is much more likely if major corporations express publicly their strong support for immigration reform.”

The investor group was eager to use their leverage as shareholders to push reform. One option frequently employed by activist shareholders—the resolution presented at the annual general meeting—was determined to be inappropriate for this application because of SEC limitations. To address what is primarily a public policy issue, the investors believed that direct appeals to corporate CEOs would be more effective. “Getting companies to speak out on public policy can create a model for what public debate might look like,” Brennan said. “The debate has gotten irrational.”

The original working group was inspired by an effort by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose office spearheaded the creation of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of mayors and business leaders who are making the economic case for sensible immigration reform. “Humane, comprehensive immigration reform is necessary for New York City and the rest of our nation to remain competitive in the global marketplace,” said Liu, New York City comptroller.

In addition to being a business imperative, humane immigration policy is also a moral imperative, the signers urge. “Regardless of our faith, we share a moral responsibility to stop the suffering caused by the current immigration policy, especially to families,” said Brennan. “And as members of the investment community, we know the path to economic prosperity lies ultimately with the humane treatment of our workers.”

The letter calls effective and fair immigration reform a “shared responsibility of individuals, companies, and government.” It states that the major components of comprehensive reform should include: effective border control, employer accountability, improved processes for needed temporary and permanent workers, and a pathway to legal status for currently unauthorized residents. “We believe comprehensive reform must be developed and implemented consistent with the human rights of all concerned, value the integrity of families, and prevent immigrant workers—be they temporary or permanent—from being subjected to second-class employment standards,” the letter said.

The letter was sent to CEOs of major American companies, and it asked them to respond by March 16, to join the effort to advocate for humane immigration reform. “We call on corporate America to be a champion of sensible immigration reform,” said Heidi Soumerai, senior vice president for Walden Asset Management. “Reform is good for business, is rooted in a great source of America’s strength, and is simply the right thing to do.”

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