Opinion: Texas’ economy can’t work without immigrant workers

Authored by Bill Lucia and Stan Marek and originally published in the Austin-American Statesman.

The first year construction giant Marek Brothers sponsored an internship with Texas high school students, 18 of the 25 student participants graduated and had a $35,000 a year job waiting for them. They went to their high school classes until noon and then were bussed to a construction lab that Marek funded at a community college. But it was only when the program ended that eight of these eighteen talented students learned they couldn’t accept the jobs their hard work had earned because they were undocumented immigrants, brought to the U.S. as children. Only ten of the 25 open job positions were filled.

This cautionary tale demonstrates the barriers our nation’s failing immigration policy places on potential workers and on well-meaning employers striving to train and staff their companies. If Congress doesn’t move swiftly to pass legal status for our nation’s undocumented immigrants, it’s only going to get worse.

Today, America’s labor shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has reached 10.9 million job openings; 712,000 of those jobs are in Texas. Businesses are shutting their doors for good because they can’t find workers. Restaurateurs can’t staff their kitchens; farmers can’t harvest their crops; patients can’t find a hospital bed. The labor shortage is both mind- and budget-blowing.

As current and former CEOs who have led large companies in two of Texas’ largest industries – health care and construction – we understand how undocumented immigrants sustain and grow Texas’ economy. Between us, we have employed almost 30,000 Texans and dread the economic costs businesses will face should Congress fail to legislate a path to legal status for one of America’s most industrious workforces.

Every day we see the incredible dedication and economic potential of our state’s undocumented immigrants. The estimated 305,000 undocumented immigrants working in construction today comprise 25 percent the entire industry’s total workforce in Texas. 

Immigrants comprise more than one in five Texas nurses and almost one in four of our state’s health aides. They staff our hospitals, build our homes, protect our food supply and are among our nation’s most productive labor markets. Texas’ 1.7 million undocumented immigrants contribute $1.7 billion in local and state taxes and $2.3 billion in federal taxes.

There are commonsense immigration solutions before Congress that enjoy solid support from our nation’s business leaders and would rebuild our economy. Research shows permanent status for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants would add $121 billion per year to the U.S. economy each year and generate $31 billion in additional federal, state and local tax revenues.

The popularity of these reforms is strongly shared by both Democrats and Republicans. The American Business Immigration Coalition recently released a bipartisan poll showing that voters in key swing states and 70 competitive house districts support not just legal status, but pathways to citizenship by a margin of 3-to-1. While calls for deporting immigrants continue on the furthest right end of the political spectrum, only 10 percent of voters, including just 17 percent of Trump voters, believe that the priority for resolving our immigration system should be deportations.

With so much at stake for Texas businesses and with bipartisan support, it is disappointing to watch Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz unwilling to make sure our nation’s immigration policy has an optimal impact on our state’s economy.

As Texan business leaders, we need our senators to recognize the uniquely high stakes our state faces when it comes to immigration reform. After 35 years of failing to address our nation’s undocumented immigrants, Americans cannot afford another year’s delay. Whether through a bill passed on the Senate floor or via the reconciliation process, the time for movement is now. Inaction is not an option.

Lucia is the former chairman, president and CEO of HMS. Marek is CEO of Marek Brothers. Both are board members of the American Business Immmigration Coalition. 


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