Political wrangling over immigration restraining economic growth in Sioux Falls
Local business leaders are pressing for reform in Washington but the debate gets tangled with the crisis on the southern border.
SIOUX FALLS — The vexing situation on the southern border of the United States is hampering efforts to build professional and blue collar workforces in places closer to Canada.
President Joe Biden’s visit to El Paso, Texas, last week highlighted the tension over the historic increases in the number of people illegally crossing into the United States.
Yet, in Sioux Falls, historic low unemployment rates have made hiring difficult for several years.
One source of workers for those open jobs is immigrants from other countries.
Business leaders in Sioux Falls have been urging the state’s congressional delegation to work toward changes to the system, particularly for professionals who have to leave the country after finishing their education.
“We’re losing a quality workforce because of immigration barriers,” said Jeff Griffin, president and CEO of the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce.
On its face, increasing the number of non-citizens who are allowed to work here is a simple proposition. Just change the number.
That should be a separate conversation from the humanitarian and security considerations at play in places like Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
But the political reality suggests they are not.
Rather, the high-stakes of razor-thin majorities in either chamber of Congress means the wants and needs of employers are tied to the failing governments and economic strife in Central and South America.
This current border crisis differs from previous eras in that the flow of undocumented immigrants has developed increasingly from areas beyond Mexico, to places like Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela.
Meanwhile, qualified professionals with in-demand skills are sent packing once they finish their education in South Dakota universities. Tourism-based businesses cannot fill seasonal positions with non-residents. And manufacturers are continually strapped for qualified labor.
The restrictions on immigration slows the growth in the city, said Griffin.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” Griffin said recently. “When people hear immigration reform they largely think of the border crisis and that’s not the case.”
But it’s the political environment in which the Chamber and their business-minded members must live. Any efforts to address the broader business needs are overwhelmed by the push to control the border.
“There is a border crisis right now, that’s their priority and I can't fault them for that,” he said.
The so-called Dreamers are another example of the problem.
Dreamers is the name given to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They are residents without citizenship who were brought to the United States when they were very young. Generally, they grew up in this country and have little or no ties to where they were born.
There’s wide support to give the Dreamers a path to citizenship but, like workforce development, it’s tied to the current situation.
South Dakota’s representatives in Congress have consistently said they want to find a solution for the Dreamers and other immigration-related issues but it won’t happen until the border is more secure.
“It’s near impossible to imagine any meaningful work visa, immigration, or DACA proposal advancing as long as this administration allows two million people a year to illegally cross the border,” U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said recently.
One of the companies with a direct stake in the debate is Gage Brothers Concrete Products. The Sioux Falls-based manufacturer produces pre-cast concrete products used around the region in buildings, stadiums and infrastructure.
Gage Brothers has about 300 employees, said Cassie Nicolai, vice president of human resources and safety, many of which are immigrants or refugees.
Wages start at $19 for entry-level production workers with no experience and go up from there. The company also has professional positions, such as engineers.
Nicolai said Gage Brothers primary pool of new workers is the friends and family of existing employees. It’s frustrating to hear the stories about how difficult and time consuming the immigration process is for those team members, she said.
About 95% of the company's positions are filled right now, but it’s always going to be a challenge finding good candidates.
“There’s no one answer, it has to be a combination of things,” said Nicolai. “Of course, we are going to work on retraining or recruiting kids out of middle school and high school and teaching them about manufacturing and the opportunities in manufacturing. But there just aren’t going to be enough people who are living here, or moving here from other parts of the country, to meet the workforce needs in this area.”
That means allowing reasonable, legal pathways to U.S. citizenship, which may have the added benefit of reducing the need to cross a river or a freeway in the dead of the night in search of a better life.
“We need people to take the proper channels to become citizens,” Griffin said. “When there is so much red tape and obstacles to do it the right way, it spills into people doing it the wrong way.”