Castillo: Why talk of immigration reform also has employers on edge

Dennis Nixon has a whole lot to say and a lot of people to convince. So, don’t be surprised if you find yourself trying to get in a word edgewise with the Laredo businessman, as I did on a couple of recent occasions.

Nixon, you see, is a man on a mission – he’s passionate about immigration reform and he thinks it’s time we stop yapping about it and do something. All the obsession with border security, immigration crackdowns, Senate Bill 4, building a wall, deporting 11 million people — all of it, he says — is just burying our heads in the sand to deny something America needs to come to grips with: our country needs immigrant labor.

Right about now, some of you might be saying Nixon is just another one of those “out-of-touch liberals.” In fact, Nixon, a Republican at heart — though he’s supported candidates in both parties over the years — is the chief executive of International Bancshares Corp. and International Bank of Commerce in Laredo. He also served as Texas finance chair for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. That’s right — Donald Trump, the chief proponent of immigration crackdowns, a border wall and mass deportations.

COMMENTARY: How the U.S. can achieve fact-based immigration reform.

I thought of Nixon the other day while reading news reports about Texas companies struggling to find workers in construction and other industries that rely heavily on immigrant labor, a large segment of the state’s workforce that includes many people who are in the country illegally. The Austin-based Workers Defense Project estimates that about half of all construction workers in Texas are in the U.S. illegally.

Business owners tie the shortages to immigrants who are spooked by a new one-two punch: the federal crackdown by the Trump administration, and Senate Bill 4, the new Texas law that bans so-called sanctuary cities. Opponents call it the “show me your papers law” because it allows police to ask about the immigration status of anyone they stop. Critics warn it will lead to profiling.

Experts agree it’s too early to quantify the effect of worker shortages, though business are rattled just the same.

“Everyone’s on pins and needles,” Craig Regelbrugge, a horticulture industry spokesman, told the AP. The farms that produce the food Americans eat need more workers to harvest the crops, he said.

Frank Fuentes, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association in Austin, told me that immigrant workers are leaving Texas jobs at construction sites, hotels, restaurants and farms for what they perceive to be friendlier states, such as California. But Fuentes said he fields calls daily from other states, too. “They ask me, ‘Hey, what’s happening? We’re losing our folks?’”

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Even before the latest reports, Nixon said agriculture and service industries were already hurting from worker shortages. Immigration crackdowns are the wrong remedy, he told me earlier this month.

“We should be finding a way to build an immigration stream into our country, not try to impede it,” Nixon said. He thinks America needs an immigration policy that addresses a need for about 600,000 to 650,000 low-skilled workers every year to keep the economy growing.

Millennials aren’t interested in filling low-skill jobs, Nixon said, echoing the business owner who told the AP that the Americans he hires for construction jobs don’t last more than half a day. Immigration is an obsession now, Nixon added, but the greater threat to prosperity and security is a declining U.S. birth rate below replacement level. With 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, “we have a demographic crisis” he said.

With its emphasis on illegal immigration crackdowns, the current political climate is out of touch with reality along the Rio Grande, where Nixon has lived for nearly half a century. The flow of immigrants who illegally enter the country, for example, has declined dramatically in the last 20 years, from about 1.6 million to about 400,000, he said, citing federal figures.

But that’s not the picture Trump painted when he announced his run for the presidency. He described a border overrun by Mexican criminals and rapists and promised a border wall that Mexico would pay for. They’re not.

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Nixon thinks the wall is an “expensive, stupid alternative.”

So, how does he square his thoughts on the wall with his support for the president?

Well, let’s say he thinks cooler heads will prevail. “No serious person,” he said, “thinks you can build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville with any kind of reasonable expectation it will be successful.”

Quick, someone get that message to the president.

Castillo is the Viewpoints editor.

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