U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao stopped in Tucson on Tuesday morning and talked about a variety of topics, including immigrant workers, the economy and work- force education.
She spoke at a fundraiser for Tim Bee, the Republican president of the state Senate and a congressional candidate in Southern Arizona's District 8.
Here are excerpts from her speech and her question-and-answer session with the audience.
On temporary-worker programs
"Immigration is a very emotional issue. The president needs to be credited for having the courage to take this issue up for national discussion. He was not successful. It will not come back again, but it will be a top-burner issue for the next president.
"(Undocumented workers) form a large part of our work force. The president has tried to craft a middle path that will protect our borders, so we address the issue of inflow of illegal immigrants, and secondly find some way to set up a temporary-worker program where we know how many workers are coming into our country from other countries. . . .
"At the Labor Department, we (handle): H1B, which is the highest skilled workers' visa program; H2A, which is the agricultural workers; H2B, which is seasonal temporary workers. . . . We are trying to streamline H2A and H2B so that it is easier for employers to find the labor they need, but through a legal basis.
"Currently we know that a lot of farmers are using undocumented workers, and because the demand is great and the legal pipeline allows so few, we're taking a look at the H2A/H2B process so we can see how best to make it easier for this program to be accessed while ensuring the proper people are still coming in.
"And the H1B is capped by statute, so there's nothing we can do about that."
"I have had very heart-to-heart talks with the Mexican ambassador to the United States, with the labor minister, with the justice minister . . . and I say to them, 'Does it not hurt your heart to see your sons and daughters leave?' And they say, 'Of course it does.' But it's also an effective way to handle the issues of economics. There's just not enough jobs in Mexico. So the issue is: How do we help Mexico increase the productive capacity of their economy so that their young people don't have to come to the United States?"
On the economy
"Our economy is still the envy of the world. . . . Our country has produced more than 8.6 million net new jobs since August 2003.
"The fundamentals of our economy are solid. The GDP growth in the first quarter was still positive, contrary to what some people might have thought.
"We are not in a recession. The economic indicators seem to be bottoming out. We're going through a rough patch right now with the mortgage crisis and the credit crunch. But the long-term economic fundamentals of our economy are quite strong.
"I don't want to blame the media, but there does tend to be an emphasis on the negative parts of our economy, in part because bad news makes good news. It's hard to get out the news about the economy and how fundamentally strong it is."
On the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement
"This is a vital, strategic ally to the United States who has done everything we have asked for, who is a bullhorn for freedom and democracy in a dangerous neighborhood. . . . So you have a Caterpillar plant here. That Caterpillar is a major export item for the United States and yet we cannot export that tractor or that equipment to Colombia because the tariffs are too high. . . . The Colombia Free Trade Agreement will facilitate and allow more American goods to be sold in Colombia, and, in so doing, more American jobs will be created."
On the work force
"What we're facing is not so much a lack of job creation, but in fact a skills gap. . . . What we have now is a situation where our competitive advantage as a nation is in those jobs that hold higher skills and more knowledge. So, No. 1, education is very important, and No. 2, after school, informal education, on-the-job training is very important as well.
"We have now a competitive advantage in certain industries and we cannot find enough workers, skilled workers. . . . Your government spends well over $23 billion for 35 different training programs on top of what the private sector provides in training to help workers access the training they need to access better job opportunities in high growth fields.
"We also need health-care workers. Because of the aging population, we need 3.4 million health-care workers in the next 10 years, including 1 million registered nurses. We have a dearth of specialty doctors. . . .
"We have a skills gap in this country. That's what we've got to address. Your government, through your tax dollars, spends billions of dollars just in my department alone, $9.5 billion actually, to provide training for dislocated and unemployed workers who need to transition and hopefully find a new job.
"Getting a good education is very important, and it's supplemented by job training. That's the key to a competitive work force."