Nebraskans don’t have to go far to find one: a “Help Wanted” sign, say Kathleen Grant and Denise Bowyer of Omaha Together One Community.
“Everybody is painfully aware of our labor shortage,” said Grant.
Meanwhile, she and Bowyer say they’d like to bring more awareness to a population that can help address workforce demands: immigrants with families, who want to live and work in the state yet have faced policy and legal barriers to jobs and overall stability.
OTOC is seeking to galvanize an assortment of people and groups to help change national immigration laws and influence state and local policies impacting foreign-born workers.
“The overall goal is to change the narrative so people see that immigrants are a value, not a problem, and are central to addressing the labor shortage,” said Bowyer.
They organized an initial gathering earlier this week at the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, which drew about 60 people from across the state. The group included employers and business leaders, representatives of labor unions, as well as faith-based and immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations.
Several immigrants spoke to the group about their Nebraska experiences. Some have been here for decades, riding a roller coaster of uncertain legal status.
While the Nebraska coalition is still developing, along with its goals, the OTOC volunteers see it aligning with the national and bipartisan Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus.
That wide-ranging group, which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, recently addressed a letter to Congress saying that at no other point in recent history has the need for immigration reform been greater.
Record low state unemployment rate
Describing its membership as from across the political spectrum, the national alliance cited concerns of persistent labor shortages and supply chain challenges, rising inflation and border security. It advocated for Congress and the White House to come together on reforms addressing “Dreamers,” farm workers and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status.
Those are groups with members who have been granted temporary lawful status in the U.S. but who face legal uncertainty about remaining. The process required for current workers to renew stays, which can be every 18 months or two years, takes a financial and emotional toll, Grant said.
Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was among those at the Lincoln meeting.
He said he has noticed a growing interest from a broad range of groups to find immigration-related and other solutions to workforce shortages.
“There is a real sense of urgency,” he said. “We’re down 50,000 to 80,000 jobs that we can’t fill. We just don’t have the people.”
Slone said declining birth rates have contributed to the dearth. The state’s unemployment rate has been at a record low for the state, 1.9%, for three months.
During the gathering, he heard speakers such as Itzel Lopez, a Nebraska recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and Mario Vazquez, who has Temporary Protected Status that is offered (along with a work permit) to people from countries with ongoing armed conflict or disaster.
It is key, Slone added, to find a “practical” and more permanent legal status for contributing immigrants like them.
As of 2020, Nebraska, according to the American Immigration Council, was home to about 3,000 in the DACA program. Started in 2012 by President Barack Obama, the program shielded undocumented young people from deportation and offered legal work authorization — though offered no path to citizenship.
DACA has faced legal challenges that today put the program and participants in jeopardy of upheaval.
About 2,000 TPS recipients live in Nebraska, OTOC said. Also targeted by the Trump Administration, the program is in doubt pending legal appeals.
The OTOC representatives say the still-forming Nebraska coalition could lobby Nebraska congressional delegates for federal changes.
Rule of law
State barriers also could be addressed, they said, to create a more welcoming environment. For example, Nebraska is the only state where DACA and TPS recipients who are authorized to work here cannot access unemployment insurance, even though their employers pay into the state’s unemployment pool, said Anna Deal of the Immigrant Legal Center of Omaha.
A legislative bill to change that situation died last year in the Legislature, and Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he opposes the measure.
Ricketts in 2016 also opposed a bill, though the Legislature ultimately overrode his veto, to allow DACA recipients access to professional and commercial licenses.
The governor says it was about the rule of law, and he argued that DACA immigrants were brought to the U.S. unlawfully and so it is unfair to give them the same privileges afforded those who entered the country legally.
Supporters said they saw the measure as a way to permit skilled, educated people to use their training while they have federal permission to remain in the country.
In her remarks to the group that met at the Lincoln chamber, Lopez said that without DACA she would not be the vice president of advancement at the Omaha-based AIM Institute, whose mission is to grow a diverse tech community.
Now 35, she has been in the U.S. more than two decades and today also is president of the Latino Economic Development Council, is a small business owner, and has a family. Yet, depending on the fate of DACA, she is at risk of being uprooted and sent to her birth place of Mexico.
“Immigration reform can be a solution to Nebraska’s labor shortage,” she said, and can “build future generations in this great state.”
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