Illinois needs more immigrant workers

A growing number of states with worker shortages want the Biden administration to let them issue temporary work permits to more undocumented immigrants, a landscaping trade group leader writes.

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Volunteers shovel a hole during a tree planting ceremony to celebrate Shriners Children’s Chicago hospital’s 100th anniversary on Oct. 4, 2022.

Landscaping has a labor shortage crisis that could be averted with more temporary work permits for immigrants, a trade group leader writes. In this Oct. 4, 2022 photo, volunteers shovel a hole at a tree planting ceremony.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Landscaping is a never-ending growth business in Illinois. More and more dual-income families don’t have the time to do their own landscaping, so they turn to professionals like those in my trade group to make their properties not only beautiful but environmentally sustainable. It’s a well-paying industry where hard workers can move up very quickly into supervision and management, but that means we need a constant supply of entry-level workers to come in and learn the ropes.

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In that respect, we’re a lot like many industries in our booming state. We may currently be ranked lower than other states facing more critical worker shortages, but that could quickly change. Only a year ago, coming out of COVID-19, our state was in far worse shape workforce-wise than it is now.

That’s why I’m joining voices with those in my and other industries, as well as a growing chorus of governors and U.S. senators, in urging the Biden administration to allow states to issue temporary work permits to as many undocumented immigrants, both long-timers and newcomers, as states need to meet their workforce requirements. This is something a presidential administration has the authority to do if it would result in a significant public benefit to the U.S.

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And it surely would. Allowing Illinois and other states to opt into a lawful, orderly and efficient temporary program to meet workforce needs in critical industries would be a huge boon for employers, immigrant workers and American consumers alike.

Governors and employers from both parties have long advocated for immigration reforms that provide safe, legal and efficient pathways to lawful status while maintaining national security at our borders in order to help our economy. This would do just that — removing the incentive for irregular border crossings if immigrants can apply for more temporary permits in states dealing with labor shortages. Immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years also should be considered for these permits.

Our current visa options for immigrant workers do not serve the economy and are out of date. Dairy farmers, for example, cannot apply for agricultural worker visas because dairies are year-round operations and not seasonal. That just doesn’t make sense.

This reform approach would make so much sense for Illinois, in particular. We have the fifth-largest Hispanic population in the nation. Of course, some of these folks are U.S.-born and full citizens, and many others are legal permanent residents. But a great many are undocumented immigrants who came here to work hard.

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Expanding the temporary work permits during the labor shortage crisis we have been facing for years would not only allow my industry and others to be able to plan for long-term growth, it also would lessen the underground economy and improve wages and benefits for all workers. Let’s face it—Congress has failed in its duty to address immigration reform.

This country was built on giving immigrants a fair shot for their hard work. For too long, Washington has failed to give the American business community the legal, protected immigrant workforce we desperately need if we’re going to stay the strongest and most vital nation on the planet. That’s why we’re calling on our current administration to flex its muscle — independent of Congress, which has failed to do its job and pass immigration reforms — so that employers across many sectors, and across many states, can get the labor they need not only to survive today, but thrive tomorrow.

And we’re also calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and all our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. to join their voices in the direction of the White House on this. We’ll all be better off for it.

Scott Grams is the executive director of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association.

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