Ten years ago, our nonprofit organization sent a team around Philadelphia, urging employers to consider foreign-born job applicants. Today, the tables have turned: Employers are desperate for workers and have flooded our inboxes and phone lines, asking for help.
The Welcoming Center, where I’m president and CEO, promotes inclusive economic growth with education and training programs that prepare immigrants for careers in the U.S. workforce. It’s a win-win: Newcomers become contributing members of the community, and businesses get the workers they need. But a shortage of foreign-born workers is holding us back. It’s the result of visa bans, record-low refugee admissions, and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has repelled international students and foreign talent. This must change. If not, Pennsylvania cities won’t meet the demands of our surging post-COVID-19 economy, and our rural communities can’t reverse population decline and brain drain.
Two pieces of legislation under consideration by Congress would address both issues. The first, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would finally offer longtime undocumented farmworkers a pathway to residency. The second, the American Dream and Promise Act, would provide permanent security for Dreamers who came to this country without papers as children. The need is particularly urgent, as a federal judge in Texas just blocked new applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program that temporarily protects Dreamers from deportation.
These bills could help ease worker shortages by preserving existing labor, allowing farmers to more easily hire temporary farmworkers, and making it permanently legal to employ the more than one million people eligible for DACA. Both have passed the House, and now need to pass the Senate before becoming law. That’s why I’m urging Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey to support these bills. Employers across Pennsylvania need your help.
Data clearly show the need for immigrant talent. Undocumented farmworkers make up more than a quarter of our country’s more than one million field crop workers. About half of all Dreamers work in essential fields, according to New American Economy, including 62,000 people in our understaffed health-care industry. Here in Pennsylvania, more than 95% of the DACA-eligible population is employed, and their households pay roughly $77 million in taxes. Our state’s total undocumented population, including Dreamers and farmworkers, contributes $551 million in taxes, according to NAE.
Immigrants also help businesses’ bottom line. The owner of a packaging business recently told me that immigrant grit and determination was so “contagious,” it reduced absenteeism among all workers, including Americans who’d been at the company for years. He said his immigrant hires brought fresh perspectives and deep empathy, which lifted worker morale and inspired greater camaraderie. As a result, he saw productivity — and profits — increase.
All hiring managers are looking for these qualities, but right now, they can’t even find bodies. Local agriculture and forestry companies have told me they worry about industry collapse if we don’t solve the worker shortage problem. With no one to pick them, fruits and vegetables are left to rot.
In my previous career as an attorney, I represented undocumented farmworkers. Many fled political violence in Central America and sought asylum here. They took low-paying jobs on our farms, toiling under strenuous conditions. They lived with grave uncertainty as their legal cases wound through the system. Many have waited upwards of 17 years for their case to even be heard in court. Again and again, I watched the system assume they were guilty of trying to take advantage of this country, even as they tried to prove themselves not just innocent but worthy of our protection and appreciation. Meanwhile, I’d watch Americans at the grocery store put fruits and vegetables into their carts without any notion of how that food got there. It disturbed me.
I see the same thing happening with Dreamers. They are nurses in our hospitals, teachers in our schools, and students in our universities. But they wake up every day wondering if they’ll be sent back to countries they don’t remember. It’s cruel. And it’s not who we are as Americans.
Dreamers and farmworkers want what other Americans want: to work, contribute, and raise their families. I hope our senators will heed this message. Protect our economy, protect our workforce, and protect immigrants working in America. Pass the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act now.
Peter Gonzales is the president and CEO of the Welcoming Center in Philadelphia.