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Midwest Businesses Say They Need Immigrants To Help Rebuild A Shrinking Labor Force

Apr 16, 2019
Originally published on April 16, 2019 5:27 pm
Copyright 2019 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In recent weeks, President Trump has repeatedly claimed the U.S. can't handle the number of migrants coming through the southern border.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The system is full - can't take you anymore.

CORNISH: Some employers in the Midwest say they're facing a far different reality. Iowa Public Radio's Grant Gerlock reports businesses there are relying on immigrants to help them rebuild a shrinking labor force.

GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: The comment from the president came during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in California where more immigrants have been seeking asylum. While the immigration system is clearly under strain, experts say there's plenty of room for more workers. For some businesses, finding enough workers is the No. 1 challenge.

JESSICA DUNKER: Above the economy, above government regulation is the need for more workforce. And so no, we are not full.

GERLOCK: That's Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association. We met at a cafe in Iowa City. And she says a lot of people who are new to the country first find work in a restaurant like this one.

DUNKER: Immigrants are twice as likely as U.S.-born workers to work in our industry. And so obviously they are a very important part of our workforce.

GERLOCK: Dave Swenson is an economist with Iowa State University and says other industries are also clamoring for immigrant workers. That's especially true in construction and agriculture.

DAVE SWENSON: It's poultry operations. It's confined animal operations. Those are the categories that have grown to depend on foreign-born workers over the last 10 to 15 years.

GERLOCK: Swenson says in Iowa, the problem is that more people are retiring than joining the job market. On top of that, the state is tied with New Hampshire, Vermont and North Dakota for the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.4 percent. There's no slack in the labor pool, and that's largely true across the country.

SWENSON: Both legally and illegally, one way or the other, we've got to figure out a way to enhance the nation's labor force because we still have a wide range of jobs that still have to have human beings doing that work.

GERLOCK: The Labor Department counts 7 million open jobs across the U.S., about a million more than the number of people who are unemployed. But the immigrants who could fill some of those jobs are caught between potential employers and stepped-up immigration enforcement.

About a year ago, there was a major immigration raid at a concrete plant in Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa. I recently spoke with a woman whose husband was one of the 32 workers who was taken into custody. Because of that and because she's not yet a citizen, she asked that we not use her name. A few weeks ago, her husband was deported to his native Honduras, a place many migrants are trying to escape because of violence. In fact, while he was in custody, she says he applied for asylum, but he was denied.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GERLOCK: "Where he's from, he was harassed by a criminal gang," she says, "but they don't care." Now she's worried because she hasn't been able to reach him since he first returned. Without her husband's income, money is tight. A local church group is helping her family and others get by, and she says they're desperate for help because since the raid, immigrants who previously had no trouble finding work are now having a much harder time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GERLOCK: "You see lots of jobs in Iowa and especially Mount Pleasant," she says. But businesses don't want to hire anyone without a Social Security card. So while the debate seems mired in the political fight over a wall, many businesses in Iowa and across the country are eager to look beyond U.S. borders for more workers. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.