Before becoming a United States senator in 2015, Thom Tillis led North Carolina’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives during a time when the state unemployment rate dropped after the Great Recession, from 10.4 percent, in 2010, to 4.5 percent, in 2017.
Now, however, the state is facing a particularly acute labor shortage in industries dependent on seasonal workers — seafood processing, landscaping, tourism. “We implemented a number of reforms that put a lot of pressure on North Carolinians to go back to work,” Tillis says. “Yet we still have the challenge of certain industries not having workers.” The jobs are not year round, and are often located in remote areas, making them less attractive to U.S.-born workers with better options. “The nature of these jobs are such that American workers in North Carolina can’t make a sustainable, living wage,” says Tillis.
The best solution at the moment, he says, is to allow businesses to access the federal H-2B visa program, which lets employers hire foreign laborers for non-agricultural, seasonal work. At the close of the season, the workers return home. Tillis says when companies get the labor they need, the regional economy — meaning American businesses and American workers — benefit. For example, a seafood company might use foreign crab pickers, but it also provides year-round jobs for U.S.-born workers elsewhere in the supply chain. “The transportation providers are American workers, the distributors are American workers,” Tillis says.
Nonetheless, the federal government only issues up to 66,000 H-2B visas a year, and while Congress often exempts returning workers from this cap, it did not do so for 2017. Given the program’s uncertainties, every year is a gamble for businesses that depend on the migrant labor. “People’s revenues suffer, and in some cases they may miss a season if they don’t have the labor inputs to run their business operations,” Tillis says. North Carolina used to be home to dozens of large-scale seafood producers, he adds, but now has just eight or nine. “Over the past 10 or 12 years, we’ve seen the majority of operations disappear in North Carolina. Many of them say they got to a point where they didn’t have the labor.”
Tillis urged the Department of Homeland Security to release additional visas this year, which Congress had authorized. “It’s not their place to tell businesses how many workers they need or don’t need,” he says. In mid-2017, Tillis blocked a key DHS nominee’s appointment, helping to eventually win the release of 15,000 additional H-2B visas. That’s a good start, Tillis says. But the government should do away with arbitrary visa caps altogether, he says, and start using Department of Labor data to accurately assess businesses’ needs.
Tillis would also like his Republican colleagues pass meaningful immigration reforms. He has proposed creating separate immigration bills on singe issues as a means to frame bipartisan compromise. That might allow lawmakers to sidestep many of the challenges that come with trying to pass a single, all-encompassing reform bill, he explains. “Can you make all the progress I’d want to make? No, but a hell of a lot more than we’ve made before,” he says.
They can be an administration that continues the 40-year-old trend of failed policies, or they can be the administration and the Congress that actually makes progress.
Lawmakers could then conclude by dealing with undocumented immigrants. “Once you’ve secured the border, and provided a more reliable and certain way for people to enter the country through different visas, and stepped up enforcement,” he says, then you can find a solution. “You stabilize the growth” of this population, he says, “and then you deal with them on their merits.”
That doesn’t mean amnesty, Tillis says. “Amnesty is the first thing we have to say that’s completely off the table, because it doesn’t work,” he says. But with 338,647 undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, mass deportations aren’t the answer either. What’s needed, Tillis says, is to give undocumented immigrants “something like a temporary protected status,” to bring them out of the shadows. “Not necessarily a fast path to citizenship or to a green card, but something that gives them stability.”
For that to happen, Tillis says, Republicans and Democrats have to work together. “This needs to be a bipartisan victory,” he says. “This isn’t something that gets done with 51 votes.” Tillis also believes that if President Donald Trump signs comprehensive immigration reform, it could provide his administration and congressional Republicans with a historic victory. “They can choose to be one of two things. They can be an administration that continues the 40-year-old trend of failed policies, or they can be the administration and the Congress that actually makes progress,” Tillis says. “It’s that simple.”