It’s the workforce, stupid.
That’s one way to sum up the rationale behind a new push by Texas businesses to rally support for immigrants and immigration reform. At a time of low unemployment and strong demand for workers, the group wants to stop scaring off potential newcomers to Texas. Some are even pushing for a way to let unauthorized immigrants work here legally.
In late February, over 50 companies and chambers of commerce formed the Texans for Economic Growth Coalition to take their message to lawmakers in Austin and Washington.
“We are committed to promoting common-sense immigration reforms that strengthen our economy and attract talent and business to our state,” the group wrote in its compact.
One goal is to head off bills that would punish immigrants and hurt the economy. There are proposals in the Texas House and Senate to end in-state tuition for high school graduates who don’t have legal status. If enacted, Texas could lose $400 million in annual economic activity, one study found.
Another goal is to make a persuasive case on the economic value of immigration. The group wants the Texas delegation to push for more immigrants, not fewer.
“The reality is that everyone is starving for workers,” said Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president at IBC Bank in San Antonio. “You either import enough human capital or create it. Right now, we’re not doing either.”
Tight labor markets in the U.S. have been exacerbated by policies to reduce legal and illegal immigration, including President Donald Trump’s focus on the border wall. Reducing this labor supply especially threatens Texas because immigrants have accounted for much of the fast growth here.
From 2000 to 2017, foreign-born workers in Texas grew over three times faster than U.S.-born workers, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Texas immigrants accounted for more than 1 in 4 four jobs in construction, manufacturing, food services and lodging.
The new coalition wants to broaden the immigration conversation from protecting the border to growing the economy.
“This irony is that the best border security can be achieved through immigration reform,” Aldrete said.
Large chambers of commerce often push for more immigrants because they’re important to business, both as a source of talent and a consumer market. But in 2017, they failed to hold back Senate Bill 4, which banned sanctuary cities and allowed law enforcement to require people to show their documents.
Many opposed the “show-me-your-papers” bill, and that sentiment helped fuel the new coalition on immigration.
A bipartisan pro-immigration group, New American Economy, met with businesses throughout the state and heard many complaints about SB 4 — and regrets.
“They didn’t realize how devastating the consequences would be,” said Chelsie Kramer, state organizer for the group. “They were very hungry for a way to speak out in a uniform voice.”
Members of the coalition include chambers of commerce from Dallas, North Dallas, Irving and North Texas, as well as from Austin, Houston and San Antonio.
Their effort is similar to Texas Competes, a business-led group that pushed back on bathroom bills targeting the LGBTQ community. It emphasized the economic risks of the legislation, and business opposition was crucial.
A large group can coordinate and amplify a message, and provide cover for executives and their companies. In general, they don’t want to alienate customers over controversial issues.
“It’s not like you want to stick your neck out,” said Jim Baron, who owns Blue Mesa Grill and TNT Tacos and Tequila restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth. “So we’re going into this all together, holding hands — hoping we can do something about it.”
Baron is one of nine executives on the leadership team of the business coalition. He said this was the first time he has stepped out at this level. He hopes to persuade the state restaurant association and other trade groups to get more aggressive in pushing for reforms.
He said he is paying $17 an hour for a line cook, up from $12 four years ago, and that’s still not enough.
“It’s not just the wages,” Baron said. “I can’t find anyone. There are restaurants I can’t open because I can’t get the staff.”
People often suggest that unauthorized immigrants just get in line for a work visa. But he said that process can take seven to 10 years and require applicants to return to their homeland. So that’s not a solution.
Marek, a specialty subcontracting company in Houston, has been turning away big projects because it can’t fill open jobs. CEO Stan Marek proposes a temporary work visa for unauthorized immigrants who pass a background check, but he acknowledges an uphill fight in Washington.
“We should go after the low hanging fruit — the people who are already here,” Marek said. “We gotta find a way for these workers to get legal status.”
For the public, he recommends a series of nonpartisan videos on immigration, which trace the history in Texas and the U.S. But in Austin, he wants more companies to push back against anti-immigrant bills and sentiment.
After the sanctuary cities law, some construction workers departed for California, Colorado and Florida, including immigrants who were here legally. They were afraid of being hassled in Texas, he said.
That’s not the right message, and it’s no way to fix immigration.
“If we don’t solve this, it’s gonna cost us billions of dollars,” Marek said.