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The Call-In: Business And Immigration


This is The Call-In. And today, we're looking at business and immigration. The Trump administration has taken a hard line on illegal immigration. It says it wants American businesses to employ American citizens and residents. But there are many industries where demand for workers outstrips supply.

DAN: Hello. My name is Dan. And I am a landscaper. I live in Kentucky.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dan called in to talk about his experience. He asked us not to use his last name so he can speak openly about how many in his industry employ immigrants in this country illegally.

DAN: It's a sad truth that most people in this business face - that a lot of people go towards the undocumented workers because they are reliable. They show up. And they want to work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dan's company used to employ mostly immigrants, but it became more difficult over the past few years. He tried for a time to get foreign-born workers through a visa program, but it was complicated and costly. Now he hires American-born workers. He checks everyone's documentation through a federal database. But he says it's not been easy to replace the immigrant workforce.

DAN: It's hard work. It's long hours. And by and large, it's hard to find Americans to do that labor at the price point that the market will bear. It's not unheard of in this industry for those entry-level positions to have 100 to 200 percent turnover rates, depending where you are in the country. And that's just a very difficult way to run a business.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so where has that left to you, in terms of the situation that your business finds itself in?

DAN: I think a good example would be - I did a little bit of research. And our employees that we had that were Hispanic had an average tenure of about two years. And our average tenure for an American was about 140 days. And so when you're looking at replacing a person on average every six months versus every two years, there's just a different level of investment as far as recruitment and training but also in productivity. A person that's been here for a year or two years can perform at a much higher level. They're more competent, and they do a better job. And so the high turnover rate, the lack of a qualified returning workforce definitely cuts into, you know, being able to run a business efficiently.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What would you like to see happen?

DAN: I would love to see undocumented laborers get some way to be able to work legally. They are, by and large, a very dependable, hard-working group of people that do a great job. And, definitely, we are at a competitive disadvantage not being able to use them. So I would love to see this willing, able workforce be made available to everybody.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not only landscaping that's dealing with a labor shortage. Many industries across the United States rely on immigrant labor - restaurants, hotels, elder care and agriculture. Michelle Jamrisko is with Bloomberg. And she's been covering immigration's impact on the economy. President Trump says he wants to see the American economy grow by at least 3 percent a year. Jamrisko says that will require tough choices.

MICHELLE JAMRISKO: In order to boost growth over time, we're going to need one of two things, at least, a higher productivity rate or a bigger population.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Productivity means just how much some - a worker gets done at his job.

JAMRISKO: Yeah, how much output.


JAMRISKO: Right, exactly - output per hour. So we've seen pretty pretty bad numbers on that front. So then you go to a population. You look at - you know, how many people are coming into the country? How many people are being born? We know we have fairly low fertility rates, and we have an aging population. So immigration becomes this kind of X-factor. And a lot of people, including economists, are looking at this and saying, well, if you're going to cut off immigration, then you need to be more realistic about what the growth prospects are going to be in the years to come because we're not really seeing too many other growth - big growth factors that could change the numbers that we've seen over the past several years in GDP.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there is a need for workers to come in and sort of boost the economy.

JAMRISKO: Right. And if you go back to looking at the industry level, I mean, when you're looking at an industry like health care, over the next 10 years, that is an industry that is expected to just explode in general because demand for caring for baby boomers and others, at home care is going to be very high.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because of the aging population.

JAMRISKO: Exactly. Right. And since, typically, these jobs are filled by foreign-born workers, any restrictions on that sort of immigration will put pressure on the work force.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about what critics say is this sort of drain on the local economy in some senses, specifically services on the hospitals, on the schools?

JAMRISKO: The flipside of that is that, you know, the population - once they are insured and, hopefully, if they are insured, the population numbers actually do help retain those services in those areas. So, actually, in Kansas, you know, there's a lot of small towns in southwestern Kansas that really relied on the population numbers to kind of at least stay steady. And I spoke with some who were in charge of this one farm.

And they said, you know, look we've - the three of us have lived here all our lives. They said, we really fear a crackdown on immigration not just because of what it would mean for the workers but also because, if they leave, we're losing our wherewithal to have a hospital close by or a school close by. You know, the localities won't see the need for it. So, you know, it's certainly - you do see that kind of strain, especially if you're bringing in - if people have come in illegally, certainly, that can weigh on the local population.

But a lot of times, even these farmers who said they suspected some of their workers might be illegal - they produced documentation. They sent that documentation to the government. And as one farmer explained to me, those people would be paying into someone's Social Security because they had a Social Security number. But it just might not be their own. So they were - they ended up paying taxes in some way and giving back but were not necessarily documented.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And not getting the benefits themselves.

JAMRISKO: Right. Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michelle Jamrisko reports on the economy for Bloomberg. Thank you so much.

JAMRISKO: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on The Call-In, we want to talk about fertility and technology. Last week, it was reported that a team of researchers in Oregon were the first U.S.-based scientists to genetically modified a human embryo. What are your questions or concerns? Does the possibility of curing hereditary diseases outweigh the potential dangers of this technology? Call in at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, your contact info and where you're from. That number again - 202-216-9217. And we may use your question on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.