Federal immigration reform and the future of the U.S. workforce

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By Jim Partington Immigration reform is a complex and very visible political issue confronting our political leadership today. We have an interesting and somewhat confusing dichotomy in the United States with our attitudes toward economic growth and immigration. James Canton in his book Future Shock and other demographers raise alarms about the future of our workforce after the Baby Boom generation retires. The generations following are insufficient in numbers to replace them in key leadership and productivity positions. This will clearly affect our ability to remain competitive in the global economy. Advanced technology and other productivity enhancements can compensate for the shortage of people to some extent, but we will be faced with severe labor shortages in two critical areas: elite leaders with advanced education, technical expertise, and an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as entry-level, unskilled labor. Since other nations have a surplus of people able to meet these needs, the obvious solution to this dilemma is immigration. This does not appear to be the option favored by most of American voters, however. The Center for Immigration Studies conducted a survey on voter attitudes toward immigration prior to the last election. The findings clearly show that a significant majority of our citizens are opposed to opening the country to more legal immigrants. When it comes to dealing with illegal immigrants presently in the country, voters generally reject the extremes of mass deportation or legalization. Mass deportation is not feasible, and legalization is not popular. Unable to pursue either of these options, we are left with the question of how to deal with 12 million, plus or minus a few million, illegal immigrants inside our borders. There is broad support for more aggressive law enforcement of immigration laws targeting this pool of illegal immigrants and those who employ them. This would remove them from the labor force and, theoretically, inspire them to return to their native country. As a practical matter, since many of them have lived in this country for years, have established families who are legal citizens, and have reputations as exemplary citizens, this enforcement effort is more likely to result in a greater burden on our social services than in relocation. Action against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens is appropriate, but it must be recognized that there is a major problem in identifying and sorting out the legal from the illegal because the federal government has failed to provide an adequate method of identifying legal immigrants. So the failure of the federal government to enforce border security for the past 20 years and provide reliable identification of legal immigrants, along with employers requirement for a workforce in excess of that available from the domestic pool, have combined to produce this untenable situation. When faced with a problem that can only be solved by political actions that the voters are reluctant to support, our political leadership can elect to educate the people about the issues and lead them to accept the necessary solutions or they can demagogue the issue for their personal political advantage. Both approaches are obvious in the debate taking place in the U.S. Congress on immigration reform. In order to resolve this dilemma, our leaders need to come up with a suitable, feasible and acceptable plan to deal with the illegals residing in the United States today. Mass deportation is not feasible at any cost that would be acceptable to most of the country. Granting them all legal status just to resolve the issue is equally unacceptable. We clearly need some standard against which we can sort out those who contribute to our society and economy, arrange for reliable identification of their status, and then send the rest back to their native country. We also need an accurate set of statistics to measure the social and economic impact of our immigration policy. Concurrent with this, we need to establish a process through which willing workers with available employment opportunities are able to enter the United States under controlled conditions for the duration of their employment. Both of these initiatives are the responsibility of the federal government and not resolvable at the state level. The restaurant and food-service industry is the largest private sector employer in the United States with 12.8 million employees and the second largest in Nebraska with 67,000 employees and sales of $1.9 billion, as well as one of the largest private sector employers of immigrant workers. The National Restaurant Association estimates the number of jobs in the industry to grow by 15 percent over the next 10 years, but the U.S. government estimates the labor force will grow only 10 percent. Even more troubling, the government estimates that the 16- to 24-year-old age group, which makes up about half of our industry's workforce, will not grow at all over the next decade. We support comprehensive reform that strengthens our borders; provides a way for employers to hire from abroad when U.S. workers are not available; creates a program for the undocumented to pay a penalty before earning permanent legal status; and establishes a verification system that is effective, inexpensive and reliable, and does not unfairly penalize employers. A rational immigration policy is essential to our industry's continued growth. Immigrants not only make up a large portion of the restaurant industry's workforce, but they also make significant contributions as consumers in our nation's restaurants and as entrepreneurs, incorporating ethnic and cultural influences as they start up restaurants of their own. Representatives Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are to be commended for introducing the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy (STRIVE) Act. This is a positive step towards achieving comprehensive immigration reform. Let's work our way past the irrational demagoguery, accept the demographic facts, and support legislation such as this so that our economy can continue to grow and we maintain our enviable international competitive position.

Bibliography

Canton, PhD, James. The Extreme Future. The Public's View of Immigration. Center for Immigration Studies. November 2006. Immigrants and the US Health Care System. American Immigration Lawyers Association Fact Sheet. Related: Read "Liberals beware: There is a high cost to 'cheap labor'" by Richard D. Lamm.

Immigration in Nebraska