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An independent task force of 53 leaders released a report, “US Economic Competitiveness at Risk: A Midwest Call to Action on Immigration Reform”, which analyzes the role of immigration in ensuring the Midwest’s future competitiveness and prosperity and identifies necessary policy directions or interventions.  It argues immigrants are essential to the region’s and the nation’s future prosperity and key to economic revitalization.

The report was released on Thursday, February 28, 2013 by cochairs and members of the The Chicago Council’s

independent task force at the National Press Club in Washington

I. Immigration Reform for America’s Future

The future of the United States depends on far more than economic recovery: the holy grail for the long term is economic competitiveness. Can U.S. firms compete with companies in other countries? Are our industries and our workers as productive as others? Is productivity growing as fast in America as it is elsewhere in the world? Many ingredients go into a nation’s competitiveness. Yet when America or any region of America starts to fall short on too many criteria, companies making decisions about where to build plants, open laboratories, and create jobs go elsewhere.

At the top of the skill ladder and at the bottom, immigrants are an essential piece of America’s global competitiveness. We as a nation must work harder to attract and retain immigrant talent and avoid wasting the potential of the immigrants already here.

Our problem: the nation’s broken immigration system is holding back the region’s economic growth and clouding its future. Worst of all, there is little we Midwesterners can do about the failings of federal immigration law. As the stories throughout this report illustrate, states, municipalities, educators, employers, faith leaders, and others across the Midwest are stepping up with local solutions to help newcomers thrive in our communities. But only Congress can do what needs to be done, creating an immigration system that works for the Midwest—for our businesses and our communities.

II. Key to Competitiveness: A Workforce That Meets Our Needs

Despite increasing educational attainment across all levels of society, the U.S. workforce alone is not educated enough to sustain a globally competitive knowledge economy. Sixty to 70 percent of the students in American computer science and electrical engineering graduate programs are foreigners on temporary visas. Twenty-five percent of U.S. patents are held by innovators born abroad. One-quarter of the high-tech firms launched in the United States between 1995 and 2005 were founded by immigrants. These newcomers don’t supplant U.S. workers. They enhance American productivity and create jobs. We need their talent to sustain our economic edge—and will need it increasingly in years ahead.

America also needs less-skilled immigrants. Long-term demographic and educational trends are changing the size and makeup of the native-born workforce. U.S. families are having fewer children. Baby boomers are retiring. Perhaps most significant, Americans are increasingly educated. In 1960 half of the native-born men in the U.S. workforce had dropped out of high school and were doing unskilled work. Today, the figure is less than 10 percent. Much of the economy, particularly in the Midwest, is undergoing an industrial restructuring that makes less-skilled workers even more essential than they were in the past.

The economic downturn has done nothing to change the fundamental educational and demographic trends that make foreign workers essential for American prosperity. Even with today’s high unemployment, employers in many sectors—high-tech, agriculture, the seasonal economy—need immigrants to keep their businesses open and contributing to the economy. As the economy improves, this need will only grow—global talent and the less-skilled workforce alike will play an essential role in the nation’s economic recovery.

We must make the right choices about immigrants at both ends of the job ladder. We need innovators and investors, and we need a legal way for low-skilled immigrants to come to the United States to work.

III. The Midwest—Successful Past, Microcosm of the Future

When Americans boast that they are a nation of immigrants, the claim rests in large part on the experience of the Midwest. But the Midwest is also a microcosm of the three principal challenges facing the United States today as the nation grapples with a new wave of immigration: the need for labor at both the top and bottom of the economy, the need for better enforcement of immigration law, and the dilemmas posed by millions of unauthorized immigrants already living and working in the United States.

In the twenty-first century, as in the past, parts of the Midwest—major cities, meatpacking towns, some rural areas—are among the most diverse parts of America. Lao and Vietnamese refugees are spread across the region. Dearborn is the established capital of Arab America. Minneapolis-St. Paul is emerging as the capital of U.S. Hmong and U.S. Somalis. The wave of Bosnian refugees that arrived in the 1990s joined older Bosnian communities in St. Louis, Chicago, and Grand Rapids. And many traditional Midwest sectors would be at a loss without foreign workers. Some 40 percent of the dairy workers in Wisconsin are Mexican, as is much of the labor force in meat and other food processing plants across the region.

As recently as 1990, most of the towns now transformed by foreign workers were settled, homogeneous communities, 80 to 100 percent white. In some places, tensions flared when the newcomers arrived. But there has also been other types of responses, strongest in the communities where the influx has been most dramatic—a quintessentially Midwestern reaction that could hold the seeds of a new American response to immigration. It has come from many quarters, some of them surprising: local ministers, concerned neighbors, the town librarian, the mayor, a local bank, sometimes the company that owns the processing plant.

Whatever the source, the impulse is the same—to find a way to deal pragmatically with the newcomers transforming the region. Across the Midwest, settled residents have recognized the way newcomers are revitalizing their communities, demographically but also in other ways. And for all their initial suspicion, after a while many seem to recognize a spirit not unlike their own—hard-working, church-going, family-oriented people who make the region a better place.

Like the rest of America, the Midwest is hostage to federal immigration policy, and states are left to cope—or not cope—the best they can. But that doesn’t mean the Midwest must remain silent. On the contrary, the region’s growing need for immigrant workers and its deepening appreciation of the talent and vitality they bring give Midwesterners a unique role—and unique responsibility—in spearheading the call for better answers from Washington.

IV. What the Midwest Needs from Immigration Reform

  • A world-class skilled workforce. Economists, business leaders, and other experts agree: the most important ingredient of competitiveness is innovation, and the key to innovation is a skilled workforce. Issues to be addressed include the H-1B visa process, the L-1 visa process, work authorization for the spouses of temporary high-skilled workers, per-country caps for employment-based green cards, and the severe bottleneck—one million people waiting in a queue—for high-skilled workers applying for permanent residence.
  • Foreign-born and home-grown entrepreneurs. The Midwest cannot hope to keep up with other regions or international competitors without a vital entrepreneurial sector, but historically the region has had some trouble attracting and retaining this talent. Local efforts can make a difference—business incubators in immigrant communities, microloan programs, and other initiatives to make credit available. But the heartland needs Congress and the immigration service to do their part, increasing visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs and streamlining the process.
  • STEM students. Many of the skilled immigrants who achieve the most success in the United States enter the country at an early age. They arrive as students, graduate to temporary visas, and then, eventually, receive permanent visas or green cards. If the Midwest is to remain competitive, it needs to facilitate this trajectory. Without help from the federal government, easing the path for STEM students who want to stay and work in the United States, there is only so much the Midwest can do. As of 2009 some 260,000 foreign students, graduate and undergraduate, were working toward STEM degrees at U.S. universities. How many will stay to make careers in the United States? The Midwest’s future depends on retaining a robust share of them.
  • Legal entry for less-skilled workers. Critical as high-skilled immigrants are to the economic future of the Midwest, the region also needs less-skilled immigrants to fill jobs when no willing and able U.S. workers are available—especially in communities with stagnant or declining populations. We must bring the number of visas available more into line with U.S. labor needs. This is not just critical for our economic future. It’s also the key to effective enforcement. The best antidote to illegal immigration is a legal immigration system that works.  And without a legal immigration system that works, we are all but sure to find ourselves with another huge unauthorized population in our midst ten or fifteen years from now.
  • A seasonal workforce. Midwest seasonal employers who can’t find enough U.S. workers need to be able to hire foreign workers quickly, easily, and legally, while workers seeking to enter the United States on a temporary or seasonal basis need to be able to do so without fear of exploitation or abuse from employers or recruiters in their home countries. Only Congress can craft what’s needed: new or improved, workable, streamlined visa programs that are user-friendly for employers and reliable and appealing to workers.
  • Better tools for employers. The overwhelming majority of employers want to be on the right side of the law. It’s their obligation as citizens and it makes good business sense. Midwest employers  understand their responsibility to verify the work eligibility of new  employees and will support a federal mandate that all employers enroll in E-Verify if it  is introduced in the context of a broader immigration overhaul—combined with legalization and fixes to the legal immigration system that bring our annual intake of workers into line with our labor needs.
  • Border and visa security. Gaining control of our borders is not just a cornerstone of immigration reform. In an age of global terrorism and international drug violence, it’s a national imperative. Much has been done in recent years to secure the southwest frontier, but there is still work to be done, including better technology, better communication among law enforcement agencies, more cooperation with neighboring countries, and more efficient processing of people and goods. We in the Midwest know first-hand that much of our economy depends on trade across the northern border. Like all Americans, we have a stake in frontiers that work to keep us safe, but also connected to our friends and allies and trading partners.
  • A permanent answer for children brought to the United States illegally. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Midwest is home to 200,000 to 275,000 young people brought to the country illegally as children and waiting in limbo for an answer from Washington that would allow them to get on with their lives, finishing their educations and finding work not in the underground economy but in their chosen career fields. In mid-2012 President Obama and Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida floated similar proposals for a temporary reprieve—no deportation but no automatic citizenship either—and the administration implemented the idea. These are promising first steps. But the Midwest needs a permanent solution passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress. Without clear, unequivocal policy, the region risks colossal waste of some of our best, brightest, and most motivated young people, squandering their potential and diminishing ours.
  • A path to citizenship. According to the Pew Research Center, some 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants live and work in the Midwest. That’s more people than in all of Dallas or San Diego or the state of Hawaii living on the margins of society. Most are otherwise law-abiding people, doing critical jobs that need to be done—work that bolsters Midwest prosperity and creates jobs for Americans throughout the local economy. No one realistically believes we can deport these workers and their families. The only other alternative—driving them out of the United States by depriving them of work and making it difficult for them to drive, go to school, get health care, and otherwise go about their lives—would be a Pyrrhic victory and a disaster for the Midwest economy. The heartland needs a better answer—one consistent with our labor needs and our midwestern values.
  • Innovative integration efforts. The flow of immigration from Mexico has ebbed with the economic downturn and may never again reach the level of the boom years. But this slowdown will have little or no effect on the most important immigration challenge facing America in the decades ahead: integrating the newcomers already here. A broad array of Midwesterners—local government, business, labor, faith-based groups, educational institutions, and civil society—is stepping up to promote immigrant integration across the heartland. The federal government can help and should be helping more with programs and resources. But ultimately we in the Midwest must shoulder the responsibility—it’s our duty as citizens and neighbors and one of the best investments we can make in our future competitiveness. 

V. The Midwest Needs a Solution

The time is now—it’s time to get this done.

Midwesterners understand political reality, and we see how hard it has become for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to come together to produce solutions on any issue, let alone an issue as complex and polarizing as immigration. But that can’t be an excuse. We can’t afford an excuse. We need answers—now—for our economy and our communities.

We in the Midwest need better solutions on our borders. We need solutions in the workplace. We need visas for high- and low-skilled workers. We need a legal immigration system that works for entrepreneurs, inventors, investors, STEM students, nurses, home health care aides, busboys, farmhands and seasonal hotel help. We need employment-based immigration that meets the needs of employers and employees. We need a family-based system that reunites relatives in a timely way. We need solutions that serve immigrants without shortchanging U.S. workers. And we need a path to citizenship for Dreamers and their parents.

The region’s competitiveness—our livelihoods, our future, our children’s future—hangs in the balance. We need Congress to act. It’s time to step up and get the job done. We in the Midwest need answers on immigration, and we need them now.