In 2005, Mobile, Alabama, was growing its shipbuilding sector and completing a $5 billion construction project at its saltwater port. It represented vital growth for the state. And the city’s chamber of commerce, a $6 million operation that serves more than 2,000 members, says foreign-born labor helped make it all possible.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and the port sustained millions of dollars of damage. Overnight, the city needed to grow its construction workforce by thousands of people, according to Ginny Russell, the chamber’s former vice president of governmental affairs. “There were huge shortages at all levels,” she says, noting that the situation highlighted the dysfunction within the immigration system. “It was at that point that the city realized it didn’t have an official policy on employing immigrants. . . . And we became concerned about the burden it was putting on businesses by not giving them adequate opportunities to fill those skilled jobs in a timely manner.”
Many of our members and investors continue to talk about workforce shortages.
Her team had to find ways to streamline the process. Their solution revolved around five key points: prioritize worker visas for the industries that needed them most; streamline the guest-worker program so foreign workers could fill those openings legally; find a path to citizenship for documented workers who wanted to stay; make the E-Verify system, an online vetting system, easier to navigate; and lift some restrictions on the number of visas issued. “The window was so small,” Russell says of the number of visas available in each job category. “We really needed to be able to widen that in order to get more of the technical, professional type of workers that were needed for a lot of the positions.”
The chamber presented its proposal in 2006 to Alabama’s congressional delegation, but no legislation was drafted as a result. Instead, employers were left to continue to navigate the complicated system, which typically requires hiring immigration employment agencies. Those costs, which include government filing fees and round-trip transportation costs for workers, add up to an average of $1,140 for each low-skilled worker hired through the H-2B visa program and as much as $4,000 for a high-skilled worker hired through the H-1B visa program. “The cost is certainly a consideration for local companies,” says Bill Sisson, the chamber’s president and CEO. “And the smaller the business, the more prohibitive the cost can be.”
Even for those businesses that can afford the hefty fees, says Russell, “there are still a lot of gaps and frustrations.” This is especially true since jobs on the Gulf Coast tend to be fluid; one year, the construction industry might experience rapid growth, as it did when the port was being rebuilt, while in other years there’s a boom in shipbuilding or tourism. “Many of our members and investors continue to talk about workforce shortages,” she says. Due in part to a decline in the U.S.-born, working-class population that’s working age, along with an improved domestic economy, more than half of the workforce nationally in some sectors of the construction industry — plasterers, drywall workers, painters — are now foreign-born.
Additionally, the federal government recently designated Mobile a manufacturing community. “We were one of the first 12 communities to have that,” Sisson notes. “And that strong growth within our manufacturing base is yet another reason why immigration reform continues to be something we monitor and are concerned about. The bottom line is, those five areas that we touched on in our proposal are still relevant for us. That’s what we’re still advocating for.”