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Immigration changes could pave path to workforce growth

Human Resources
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Frank Knapp sees one straightforward solution to the labor shortage facing many industries as the nation continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic: Make more workers available. 

Three pieces of legislation currently before the U.S. Senate can help accomplish that goal, said Knapp, president and CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. The bills, including the bipartisan Durbin-Graham Act of 2021 co-sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, would provide a path to legal status for three key groups of potential laborers: immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers; recipients of Temporary Protective Status; and farmworkers.  

“If we’re going to do anything about immigration reform, let’s take care of the people who are here working, contributing, paying their taxes,” Knapp said. “This is the time to do it. We have an economic need for them to contribute more.” 

In February, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, introduced for the third time the Dream Act, which would allow immigrant students without lawful status brought to the U.S. as children to earn lawful permanent residence and eventually American citizenship. Dreamers, granted work permits and freedom from deportation under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, would have to meet educational and work requirements and have not committed a felony, among other stipulations. 

Immigration reform efforts could also be addressed more sweepingly in a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that has passed the Senate and moved forward in the U.S. House of Representatives last month. The resolution, to be voted on again in the House on Sept. 27 before returning to the Senate, would allocate $107 billion to legalize the status of up to 7 million undocumented workers, including Dreamers, TPS recipients, and farmworkers.  

“These Dreamers have been here since they were children. A lot of them are in their 20s now,” Knapp said. “They’ve figured out how to go to school and pay for school. They’ve graduated. They’ve got jobs. Some of them have started businesses. They’ve got families. The United States of America is all they know. What purpose does it serve to keep them in a state of constant worry about their future status and about some policy change from the executive level to end DACA or simply to tell ICE go round up everybody? They could be contributing more to our economy if they could plan their future with certainty.   

“They can’t do that now. None of those three groups can do that now. Let’s do the right, fair, moral thing and give them legal status.” 

There are also practical considerations to the Durbin-Graham Act, along with the SECURE Act and the Bennet Crapo Senate companion bill to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, Knapp said. With studies warning of a 40-year low in American startups for the past five years and other research pointing to more families not having or delaying having children, the country is facing a numbers problem.  

“We need more young adults to work in this country,” Knapp said. “We are in a demographic stagnation, which means we’re getting older, and it’s not just us. It’s China. It’s Russia. It’s European countries. It’s Central American countries. But people want to live here. People want to migrate here. People want to be involved in our economy, work here and contribute. Where’s the immigration demand for China and Russia or Central America? It’s all focused on the United States of America, who has the ability to take these people in legally and let them contribute to our economy.” 

The SECURE Act would allow people with Temporary Protected Status, afforded to nationals from countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster, to apply for legal permanent residency, while the Bennet Crapo legislation, a companion bill to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act which passed the House in March, would overhaul the immigration system for farmworkers and alter the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program. The changes would provide more protections for laborers and, proponents say, a more stable workforce for employers.   

Robert Boroff, managing director at RSI Executive Search Recruiters in Charleston, agrees that changes to immigration policy could help mitigate challenges faced by companies such as his, which fills jobs in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville.  

“People get upset about immigration, but we’re a country of immigrants,” Boroff said. “We’re going to have to import more immigrants to do these jobs. ... Do you want to go out and work in the lettuce field? I don’t. It’s back-breaking work, (but) there are people on the planet that want to work in these positions, and if we can’t find them here or in other states, you’re going to have to get them from other places.” 

Boroff and Knapp both say improved K-12 education and increased workforce training can help produce more, and better-qualified, workers. But once a person is prepared to enter the workforce, Knapp said, policies need to make it easier to remain there.  

“You can’t tell a single woman with kids ‘Go back to work’ if she says ‘I’ve got to pay the same amount of money that I would make on my job just paying somebody else to watch my kids. I might as well stay at home and watch the kids,’ ” Knapp said.  

“That is crucial, to build that workforce that is out there, sitting on the sideline, mostly women. Get them back in the workforce by providing affordable child care for them.” 

That can also be addressed through legislation such as the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, Knapp said, which he said would also help leveling the playing field between big companies and small business that can’t afford a medical leave program for workers. Those businesses often struggle to provide benefits such as 401Ks, which Knapp believes can also be remedied at the federal level through incentive savings programs that only require an employer to offer payroll deductions. 

Such measures are necessary, Knapp said, to address a multifaceted issue that is only becoming more pressing.  

“People do not understand the severity of this problem,” Knapp said. “Every year we get further and further behind in producing young people who can take over jobs. We’re aging out. But the demand doesn’t go away for those jobs. We’re living longer, but I’m not doing that work that needs to be done. I’m not out there picking the (crops) and working in restaurants, and the big hue and cry is for those types of workers, but it goes on up the ladder.  

“Professionals at every level are not there.” 

This article first appeared in the Sept. 13 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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