Iowa's Businesses Need Immigration Reform
May 25, 2021
The following is an op-ed article featured in The Gazette on 4/18/2021.
Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two landmark pieces of immigration legislation: The Dream and Promise Act and The Farm Workforce Modernization Act. As these bills move to the U.S. Senate for consideration, Iowa City-Cedar Rapids (ICR) business leaders strongly urge Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst to support both, as steps forward in finding solutions to Iowa’s workforce challenges.
Our organizations represent an array of industries in the ICR region, with both urban and rural interests. Our members consistently tell us they can’t find enough workers. Brain drain and an aging population remain persistent problems, even as the pandemic drove up unemployment. As our economy recovers, our recruitment and retention challenges increase. Yet Iowa is not alone in facing these challenges, and the competition for workers endures.
For Iowa to meet our workforce needs, we must attract more people to our region, and do everything in our power to ensure the workers who are already here can stay. Immigrants drive over half of our region’s total population growth, according to New American Economy (NAE). Businesses rely on immigrants as both employees and customers. These bills would protect the workers already powering our economy and allow them to stay and continue contributing to our communities.
Dreamers were brought to this country as children, through no fault of their own, and educated alongside their American-born classmates. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program gave many temporary lawful status, and according to NAE, Iowa’s Dreamers are already working and paying $17.7 million in taxes every year. But the past several years has shown the DACA program is fundamentally unstable and passing the Dream and Promise Act would give stability to Dreamers and the employers who rely on them.
Workforce shortages cause many farmers to rely on migrant and immigrant laborers, and numerous farmworkers are undocumented — more than 1 million people nationwide. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act supports our state’s farmers and everyone who depends on the ag sector. In Iowa, that’s just about all of us. Our region is known for cereal production that feeds the world thanks to Quaker Oats and General Mills. These manufacturers, along with other food producing operations within our region, rely on Iowa’s farmers who in turn, rely on immigrant labor. Immigration impacts our food supply at every level. An unstable system puts us all at risk of shortages and rising costs. This Act is a smart, measured approach to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows fairly, including modernizing the federal electronic verification system that businesses have long supported.
Our organizations stress the need for pragmatic policymaking. In the past, Sens. Grassley and Ernst have called for comprehensive immigration reform, and they aren’t wrong. Our immigration system hasn’t seen comprehensive reform in decades, is extremely outdated and doesn’t meet the various needs of our nation. But today’s political realities tell us a piecemeal approach is the only way we will see our immigration laws updated.
The American Dream & Promise Act and the Farm Worker Modernization Act don’t address every problem within our immigration system, but they can start the process for a broader conversation on reform, and in the meantime solve real problems rural and urban Iowa face. In recent years Grassley and Ernst have shown they understand the challenges facing Iowa’s businesses, and we call on them again by asking for their support of these immigration reform bills that provide solutions to Iowa’s workforce challenges.
Barbra Solberg is public policy strategist with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. Jennifer Banta is vice president for advocacy and community development with the Iowa City Area Business Partnership.