As a candidate, Donald Trump mostly talked about cracking down on illegal immigration. But that was then. Now, the Trump-backed Senate bill that would cut legal immigration in half is based on the familiar argument that foreign interlopers are taking jobs away from American-born workers.
Only, as Kansas City business owners will tell you, that’s just not so. The bill, known as the RAISE Act, “appears to hamper access to the talents and skills business needs at all levels,” said Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, and “seems inconsistent with what we’re hearing from Kansas City area businesses.”
With “help wanted” signs posted all over town, it’s not really a secret that lower-wage jobs are going begging. But one owner of local restaurants, who asked to weigh in anonymously to avoid alienating customers, said that 30 or 40 percent of employees are legal immigrants at this point, and jobs that pay a starting wage of $15 are still tough to fill. “There’s no one to hire now, and if you let fewer people in, businesses are going to suffer.”
Local firms trying to hire top talent from around the world are having a hard time, too, chiefly because immigrating to Canada or Europe is already so much easier, and employment-based green cards are severely limited. Mira Mdivani, an Overland Park-based business immigration attorney, says every client she has talked to in the day since the bill was announced is worried about it.
“In Missouri, we have 20,000 open IT jobs” and cutting total legal immigration will only exacerbate that problem even if the proposed bill does favor the highly skilled, she said, in part because it will make the most sought-after employees wonder whether any immigrants are really welcome here.
Some sectors gave up on finding enough U.S.-born workers long ago: “Our industry can’t find domestic workers” for jobs that start at $13 an hour, said Dalton Hermes, CEO of Hermes Landscaping, whose company has been bringing foreign workers to the Kansas City area on temporary, H-2B visas for 19 years.
Why is it so hard to hire locals? “It’s hot, it’s outside, it’s physically strenuous and a high percentage cannot pass a drug screen. We’re not raising our children to value that kind of work,” Hermes said, or even to “learn that kind of work ethic.” His experience with U.S.-born workers who do sign on, Hermes said, is “work half a day and they quit, or work a day and they quit. The average tenure for a domestic worker is about three weeks.”
Now, the proposed bill would not cut the number of temporary workers. Trump himself has hired them, and the administration is well aware that we need more such workers rather than fewer. Just this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be issuing 15,000 more H-2B visas — this fiscal year only, supposedly — for seasonal workers in landscaping, construction, tourism and fishing.
But one of the Senate sponsors of the bill that Trump supports, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, has used exactly the same false argument against increasing temporary worker visas that he has used to advocate for the RAISE Act, which over the next decade would slice legal immigration in half, mostly by barring many family members of legal immigrants from joining them in the U.S. (Because it would also favor those who speak English already, it would have kept many of our forebears from immigrating, and Trump’s, too.)
In a May speech against increasing the number of temporary worker visas, Cotton said, “A lot of the arguments for this kind of program boil down to this: No American worker will do that job. That is a lie. There is no job that Americans will not do. To say anything else is an insult to the work ethic of the American people who make this country run.” It may be an insult, but it’s also a reality.
Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican sponsoring a similar bill in the House, says if there were fewer immigrants in low-paying jobs, employers would be forced to pay more and Americans would apply in droves. This is an unusual argument from the party that opposes raising the minimum wage because it would shutter small businesses.
But with 200,000 construction jobs at all skill levels going unfilled last year, it’s also patently untrue. Instead, this whole effort seems purely political, and both anti-family and anti-business.