KXAN Austin

Increase in legal immigration could help solve Texas’ labor shortage

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — While much of the state’s leadership over the last year has focused on the crisis at our southern border, there’s another border crisis: legal migration is at its lowest in decades.

It was already on the decline before the pandemic, and then shutdowns worldwide made the problem worse.

Earlier this year, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Suzanne Clark called for a major increase in legal immigration.

“We must double the number of people legally immigrating to the U.S.,” Clark said, calling it a possible solution to the current workforce shortage nationwide.

“We can’t simply move people from one industry to another, or from one skill-level to the next. We have to grow our workforce if we want to grow our economy and stay competitive,” Clark continued.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows migration to Texas, specifically, decreased by nearly 50% from 2020 to 2021.

For industries experiencing worker shortages, like the service industry, ramping those numbers back up can be part of the solution.

“Immigration reform is probably the closest thing to a silver bullet, because it gives us the ability to bring a significant number of new employees online very quickly,” Kelsey Erickson Streufert with the Texas Restaurant Association said this week.

“We’re still about 70,000 jobs down, just in Texas, in the leisure and hospitality industry,” Streufert said. “Even before the omicron variant hit Texas, 78% of our Texas restaurant operators said they didn’t have enough employees to meet existing customer demand.”

Migration experts agree, change is needed. Julia Gelatt with the Migration Policy Institute says some of those fixes are short-term, as processing for visas and immigration halted temporarily during the shutdown in 2020.

“The government is really behind in processing visas and immigration applications. There’s a big backlog of people who want to come legally to the United States that are eligible to do so. But are waiting for the government to give them the ‘OK,'” Gelatt said.

Long-term changes are needed too, though.

“We’re working with immigration laws that were built in 1990, we’re really long overdue for an overhaul of our immigration laws. And something that would be really beneficial is if immigration levels could adjust to what’s happening in the economy. In times like now, when labor markets are really tight, and employers are looking everywhere they can for workers, it would be great if we could bring in more immigrants to fill those jobs. When unemployment is high, maybe we should be bringing in fewer immigrants, like we saw over the past couple of years,” Gelatt explained.

But, Gelatt said the current record-setting influx of migrants crossing our southern border illegally is getting in the way of politicians addressing actual reform.

“At times when our border seems out of control, when there’s lots and lots of people coming to the border, and people kind of see this sense of disorder, that reduces legislators’ appetite to talk about immigration reform. Some members of Congress say, ‘Well, all these people are sneaking across our border, we need to get that under control before we talk about any other part of our immigration system,” Gelatt continued.

“Without something like immigration reform, it is going to be a long-term challenge,” Streufert said, pointing to labor issues beyond just Texas restaurants.

“It’s one of those challenges that isn’t necessarily going to result in restaurants closing, but you are going to see longer waits, which means the restaurants…recoup less profit after losing profits for basically two years. I mean, many of my members are just now starting to break even again,” she said.