Thursday, June 7, 2007 | 7:14 a.m.
WASHINGTON - At a recent shareholders meeting for MGM Mirage, chief executive Terry Lanni was asked the company's position on immigration.
We're for border security, a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and a swifter process for those legally trying to enter the country, he told the group.
The shareholder said he respectfully disagreed , but it was Lanni who got the applause.
The reason is one of the dirty little secrets of the immigration debate under way in Washington. Many companies rely on immigrant labor and fear that the supply will be stanched.
In Las Vegas many immigrants, legal or not, have helped to propel the region's protracted economic boom. They wash hotel laundry, cook restaurant meals and build the luxurious casinos and homes that have made the region one of the most visited and fastest growing in the nation.
Rather than demonizing immigrants as many Americans do when the immigration debate heats up as it has this month, companies in Las Vegas want to ensure that Washington doesn't take steps to curtail the flow of labor.
"Immigrants impact practically every aspect of our business," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, which is adding the $7.4 billion CityCenter , with 12,000 new jobs, to its casino empire.
"Whether we talk about the people who are running our hotels, designing our interiors, chefs in the restaurants, or performers in the interior, workers at every level in our industry The impact can't be overstated."
Companies like MGM insist their workers are legal and have established systems to verify that employees have the right to work in this country.
But it's no secret undocumented workers thrive in and around the bright lights of the Strip.
Federal authorities raided a janitorial supply company earlier this year that had a contract with one of the restaurants in an MGM property.
Construction subcontractors say their workforce would be cut sharply if Washington deported the estimated 12 million immigrants in the country illegally or prevented future immigrants from arriving.
One-third of all construction jobs in Nevada as of 2005 were held by immigrants, with the biggest group coming from Mexico, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Hispanics account for 90 percent of the growth of construction jobs in the West.
"If we do anything to decrease the workers, construction will have a really hard time," said Leon Mead, a construction attorney on the board of the Association of General Contractors in Las Vegas.
"There's still a shortage of labor here in Las Vegas," he said, even with the downturn in the housing market. "Just look at the Las Vegas Strip - there's a demand going on right now."
Ever since hiring undocumented workers became illegal with passage of the 1986 immigration act under President Ronald Reagan, there has never been a serious effort to enforce the laws, experts said.
That bill's advocates have said that Republican and Democratic administrations alike failed to clamp down on companies that hire illegal workers.
Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said much of the policy response on immigration over the years has been driven from the idea that these immigrants "did something to us" by outsmarting the border guards and entering this country.
But what about the policies of this country that allow immigration to flow?
"It's not an accident," Suro told reporters this week at the National Press Foundation. "To think an economy and country this large wouldn't create vehicles for immigration is an enormous lack of perception."
As the debate continues in Washington, Congress generally agrees that it needs to apply tighter rules on employers. The bill now before the Senate would impose new reporting requirements on companies and hefty fines.
A new electronic reporting system would require employers to input a worker's ID and instantly verify status with the Social Security office and, in some cases, the Department of Homeland Security.
Companies that break the rules would face fines as high as $75,000, costs that could bankrupt some , aides said.
But some industries are fighting the provisions, saying the new rules are cumbersome and are more than they signed up for.
"The businesses out here certainly want to abide by the laws, but it's difficult when you're asking them to be the federal government's eyes and ears and not give them tools to do it," Mead said. (A Nevada law that would have clamped down on companies that hire illegal immigrants was watered down during the legislative session that ended Tuesday.)
Feldman says MGM already has extensive requirements to verify workers, and wants any new bill to ensure legal immigrants can more quickly be processed to work in this country.
The gaming and construction industries oppose the bill's guest worker provision, which would deny temporary workers a chance to become citizens. Companies say they could lose their investment in workers if they have to return to their home countries.
But many companies agree the existing immigration system is broken, and if Congress fails to deliver an immigration bill this session, they will be disappointed.
"Exceedingly," Feldman said. "We've made known our feelings."