The numbers aren’t in our favor when it comes to workforce needs — here in Texas and nationally. And the tack the administration is taking on immigration policy in Washington is certain to make a bad situation worse.
Workforce needs and immigration are closely tied together — and if we aren’t smart about the policies we enact in D.C. and Texas, we’re going to find ourselves struggling to keep pace with demands for a wide-range of skilled labor.
For more than 40 years, I’ve focused on workforce, education and competitiveness issues here in Texas — as a state lawmaker, as chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission under Gov. George W. Bush and more recently as CEO of the Texas Association of Business. Everywhere I went, I heard a common plea among employers: “We need trained workers — and we need trainable workers.”
That plea is growing only louder in a country in which 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day. And you can hear the crescendo here in Texas, where 69 percent of construction firms were “having a hard time filling some hourly craft positions,” according to an Associated General Contractors of America survey.
The survey was conducted earlier in 2017 and released Aug. 29 — with much of Houston under water as Hurricane Harvey finally trudged away, leaving the city to start thinking about the huge rebuilding project that lay ahead. If anyone in Houston noticed the survey that day, they knew they had an even higher labor-force mountain to climb.
We have a partial solution at our fingertips, and already in our workforce and our schools, if we allow ourselves to seize it. They are the “Dreamers,” young immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
But now their future is in limbo after President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on Sept. 5. The program, in effect since 2012, temporarily protects young immigrants from deportation and allows them to work legally — in addition to opening additional educational opportunities.
Now the clock is ticking on a six-month window during which nearly 700,000 current DACA recipients remain protected. After that — without intervention from Congress — they will lose their work permits and will be at full risk of deportation as their deferred action expires.
We cannot deport our way out of the very real, very extensive demographic and workforce challenges we now face. Deporting young people who are productive, hard-working and contributing in so many ways to our economy and communities would be devastating to Texas and to our country. Dreamers contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to a healthy economy that works for all of us.
Texas has had more than 124,000 DACA recipients since the program began — second among all U.S. states. These young people are American in every way except on paper. Congress simply must act to provide a solution.
Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz and members of our Texas delegation in Congress, can take the lead. I hope they do Texas proud.
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Combining a solution for Dreamers with meaningful border-security solutions that address actual problems, such as sightlines on the Rio Grande and smuggling at our ports of entry, can earn bipartisan support, boost our economy and help keep our communities safe.
Such a Republican-led solution also would change the narrative on immigration, which both parties too often turn into a political lightning rod. Dreamers are among the many immigrants who remind us that outdated immigration policies affect real people — real people that contribute to our local communities, our schools, our tax base and our businesses.
Given the support of the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum on DACA and the Dreamers, Congress should act without delay to address our immigration challenges in a way that unites us.
It’s rare to see such broad-based support across voters in the US behind a single issue. Now, let’s see if leaders in D.C. can show the same bipartisanship and can-do attitude that voters and Dreamers have shown the rest of us.
In so doing, lawmakers can begin to address in a realistic way the demographic challenges our labor force faces. There’s a real solution to our workforce needs — and the Dreamers can and should be part of it.
Hammond is a public affairs consultant in Austin and former CEO of the Texas Association of Business.