Immigration reform elusive in election year, but inevitable for economy

If the image of Somalis from arid East Africa working in a snowblower plant in Brillion caught you by surprise, join the club. Thousands of people in Wisconsin don’t know the full extent of how immigration is changing the face of the state’s economy.

The real news out of Brillion wasn’t the fact that Ariens Co. has a diverse workforce — company president Dan Ariens has been committed to that principle for a long time — but that a clash of cultures took place because of it.

About 50 Somali workers at the Ariens plant in northeast Wisconsin recently protested the company’s enforcement of a policy of two 10-minute breaks per work shift. The workers, all Muslim, wanted more unscheduled prayer time (Muslims pray five times daily). A previous policy on unscheduled prayer breaks was seen as more accommodating by Muslim workers, but viewed by the company as hurting productivity and potentially unfair to other workers.

In the end, 32 of the Somali workers decided to stay and work within the new Ariens policy; 14 quit and seven were fired.

The incident provides a snapshot of adjustments that are likely to continue as Wisconsin and the nation come to grips with immigration’s existing and ever-expanding reach into the economy.

Whether it’s dairy and agriculture, information technology, construction, tourism, or manufacturing, virtually every sector of the Wisconsin economy employs foreign-born workers. Nearly 6% of the state’s workforce is foreign-born, and the percentage of immigrant workers in sectors such as the dairy industry has been estimated at 50% or more.

The impact of those workers can be measured in terms of productivity, buying power, entrepreneurship, and tax revenues, and the numbers are impressive. Immigrants are filling jobs that native-born Americans either don’t want or aren’t trained to do, and they’re replacing some of the “Baby Boomers” who are retiring by the droves.

The dispute over prayer time at Ariens is ironic, given the company’s willingness to take a chance on foreign-born workers in the first place, and the possibility it may now face a federal equal employment opportunity complaint as a result.

It also explains why the nation is unable to come to grips with the need to change current immigration policies, which range from literally being a lottery in the case of H1B visas for more educated workers, to just plain nonsensical for less skilled workers who contribute mightily to the economy. Clashes of culture and values, not to mention old-fashioned fear of outsiders, leave the issue wide open for political demagoguery.

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The case for rational immigration reform was addressed Feb. 5 during a panel discussion of the Governor’s Conference on Economic Development, which is produced by the Wisconsin Economic Development Association. Its members encourage exchange of information, cooperation, and adoption of industry “best practices” to keep Wisconsin’s economic growth on track.

“The economic contributions of immigrant workers in Wisconsin help us move forward,” concluded Jerome Grzeca, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in immigration law. “Reform would offer several social and economic benefits to immigrants and non-immigrants in both Wisconsin and the wider United States.”

How to obtain reform is the problem, as anyone who has followed the 2016 presidential race can testify. However, there are some broad outlines for a solution.

  • Despite the fact the United States is now in a “negative” immigration status with Mexico, meaning more Mexican nationals are leaving the United States than entering, most members of Congress agree border control must be addressed.
  • Many business sectors view the competition for workers, skilled and semi-skilled, as essential to U.S. competitiveness. Without enough workers, the United States will slowly lose ground to emerging nations that are building younger, better-educated workforces.
  • Clear pathways must be established to better define who can obtain visas, and to set market-based goals for how many work permits can be issued to skilled and non-skilled workers.

The real argument centers on whether people working illegally in the United States right now should be offered a chance to stay if they get necessary documentation. Opponents say that approach rewards those who broke the law.

Here is what’s known: Foreign-born workers already hold tens of thousands of jobs in Wisconsin and will hold thousands more in the future. Immigration reform is a job for the president, Congress, and the federal courts, but a failure to address it rationally affects all states, Wisconsin included.

Listen carefully this election year: Candidates who disagree on solutions are one thing, but those who refuse to recognize immigration reform as an economic issue are avoiding reality.

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