Hall: Immigration reform could boost Longview's labor force for years to come

As president and CEO of the Longview Chamber of Commerce, I have had several East Texas employers come to me with concerns regarding attracting and retaining a workforce. While our population has grown about 2% over the past decade, we haven’t kept pace with the growth seen in the urban areas of Texas.

Many businesses in our region agree that immigrants can help rural America — both East Texas and beyond — meet the unique challenges we face. But we need pragmatic national immigration policy to do it.

In recent years, the U.S. has issued fewer visas for skilled workers (immigrant visas fell 14% between 2016 and 2018), and there’s an enormous green card backlog, preventing many workers from staying in the country or locating here. As of May 2018, nearly 400,000 foreign nationals were awaiting their green cards under the employment-based category. If the state and federal government doesn’t address these problems, I fear we could see our workforce infrastructure crumble and cause harm to our largest employers.

Immigrants across the country are helping revitalize areas that have suffered from the decline of manufacturing. Census data shows a 21% increase in foreign-born residents in our county between 2009 and 2017. These are hard-working individuals who not only launch businesses and create jobs, but fill gaps in our workforce.

For example, one of our medical centers launched an internal medicine residency program in 2012 to address a deficit of primary care physicians in our area. A large percentage of the new residents have J-1 Visas. After graduating, a number of doctors from Asia to Central America have stayed to help serve patients in Longview and Tyler.

Still, the deficit remains and many graduates leave due to a lack of J-1 Visa waivers available to each state. J-1 Visa waivers are granted by the federal government based on a willingness by the physician to practice in underserved areas. Each state is allocated only 30 such waivers. Unfortunately, this number is far below what is needed in Texas.

In addition to filling key jobs, immigrants boost our economy by paying taxes and buying homes. Data show they launch companies at twice the rate as U.S.-born, according to New American Economy — and in Longview, immigrants have opened new restaurants, hotels, and construction companies. There are more than 3,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in our region alone, according to the organization’s data.

I love our community and I know we can make it even better by welcoming immigrants who bring new ideas, boost the economy, and enhance our understanding of other cultures. We’re doing what we can to make this happen and it’s why we’re a member of the Texans for Economic Growth Coalition, a group of businesses and associations dedicated to recognizing and supporting the positive impact that immigrants have on the state economy. But we also need our elected officials to pass legislation that will give skilled immigrants a legal pathway to stay here.

The bottom line is our immigration system is broken. It doesn’t meet the current needs of today’s society or our business community. Let’s stop the political bickering and find bipartisan solutions to these immigration issues. Together we’re stronger and by finding a way forward, Longview will continue to prosper for future generations to come.

— Kelly Hall is President and CEO of the Longview Chamber of Commerce.

Today's Bible verse

“ ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”

Jeremiah 23:5-6

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