A Complex Portrait: Immigration, Jobs and the Economy

BY JOE ROJAS-BURKE & KIM MOORE

Oregon Business reports on the visa squeeze, the skills gap and foreign-born residents who are revitalizing rural Oregon.

Oregon Business reports on the visa squeeze, the skills gap and foreign-born residents who are revitalizing rural Oregon.


 

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As Immigration Reform Stalls, Businesses Struggle to Find Workers

BY JOE ROJAS-BURKE | PHOTOS BY MEGHAN NOLT | ILLUSTRATION BY NEIL SHRUBB

Immigration reform seemed to be making progress. A comprehensive bill, backed by four Republicans, cruised through the U.S. Senate last year. It included requirements for building 700 miles of border fences, adding 38,000 more border-patrol agents, and imposing harsh penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers. 

At the same time, it cleared the way for significantly expanded immigration, with more temporary visas for skilled workers, more permanent visas for foreign science graduates of U.S. universities, and new opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors to come to the U.S. It also offered a path for 11 million undocumented workers to become permanent legal residents. 

After House Republicans refused to support it, President Obama made impotent threats to use executive power to change the immigration system without Congress. The president backed down in September, when it became clear that the action might jeopardize Democrats in the upcoming election. Prospects for reform now seem distant as ever.

In Oregon, the issue has spilled onto the ballot in a fight over the state law giving undocumented immigrants legal driving privileges. The driver-card law passed last year with bipartisan support and the backing of wine growers, landscaping nurseries and the hotel and restaurant industry. But it immediately galvanized a grassroots opposition that qualified Measure 88, a referendum aimed at overturning the law, for the November ballot. 

1114immigration IMG 2210 500px“To knowingly harbor someone here illegally is against federal law,” says Sal Esquivel, a real estate broker, Republican state representative from Medford and one of three petitioners for Measure 88. 

Immigration also broke out as a defining issue in the Oregon governor’s race. Rep. Dennis Richardson, a retired trial lawyer from Central Point who is challenging Gov. John Kitzhaber, opposed both the driver-card law and a law authorizing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Kitzhaber championed both. 

What can’t be ignored is that foreign-born, undocumented workers account for more than 5% of the state’s workforce. And agriculture is not the only industry that’s become dependent on immigrant labor. Bill Perry, vice president of government affairs for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, says undocumented laborers may account for 15% of the workforce in his industry, and perhaps as much in unskilled jobs in construction and home health. 

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 Jim Gilbert, co-owner of One Green World

Nationwide, the number of undocumented immigrants peaked in 2007 at around 12.2 million. The number fell about a million during the Great Recession and has remained flat since 2009, causing acute labor shortages in Oregon’s vineyards, orchards and nurseries. 

“It hurts. We’ve had to make some decisions to cut back just because of a lack of labor,” says Jim Gilbert, co-owner of One Green World, a nursery specializing in fruit trees and berries. The business needed a crew of about 50 over the summer but struggled to recruit more than 30.

Studies have repeatedly shown that low-skilled migrant workers do not compete with U.S. citizens for jobs, and that a broad swath of employers are being held back by immigration policies that don’t work well for anyone. 

“Much of our immigration policy really doesn’t account for what we know about immigration,” says John Green, director of the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi.


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