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Could Central American deportees help solve worker shortage?

Venezuelan migrants wait for assistance outside of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid in Mexico City, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. This group of migrants interrupted their trek in Mexico City after the U.S. announced that Venezuelans who walk or swim across the border will be immediately returned to Mexico without the right to seek asylum. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

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(NewsNation) — The U.S. is short almost 3 million workers and some argue the U.S. is missing a big opportunity when it comes to immigration and the economy.

Pedro Casas-Alatriste, a research and policy manager with the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, says an aging workforce and slowing reproduction rate means the U.S. doesn’t and won’t have the capacity to supply an economy demanding workers.

The U.S. has deported more than 1 million immigrants over the past two decades — and historically these people are young and work in exactly the fields where the U.S. is facing shortages, Casas-Alatriste’s research with the Brookings Institute shows. 

“There are two job openings for each person unemployed,” he said. “When you look at the previous experience of these people that have been deported, you have all the kinds of capabilities needed for those jobs.” 

As the public increasingly worries about the economy, many politicians are turning to just such a solution. 

“We need a bipartisan fix here. I’ll tell you right now if we don’t solve immigration … we’re talking about worrying about recessions, we’re talking about inflation,” Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh recently told CNBC. “We’re going to have a bigger catastrophe if we don’t get more workers into our society, and we do that by immigration.”

The U.S. labor force is getting old. By 2034, senior citizens will outnumber children under 18 for the first time in the history of the U.S. — reducing the country’s ability to pay for Social Security and other benefits. 

“The U.S. is heading at a very fast pace towards 2040, where it’s going to reach somewhere around two workers per retiree,” Casas-Alatriste said. “And then that is just mathematically unsustainable.”

There’s a current shortage of almost 50,000 construction workers — even taking into account unemployed Americans, Casas-Alatriste and his co-author Dany Bahar found. In the retail trade, there’s a deficit of 420,000. In the food services industry, that jumps to 835,000 empty jobs. 

Some argue an increase in immigrant employees can hurt unions or increase the low-wage workers’ impact on the economy. Yet research shows shortages don’t just impact workers in low-skill jobs; it can create and improve retention of white-collar jobs. 

“When there are fewer pizza delivery drivers, there are also fewer managers needed to supervise them and fewer accountants needed to pay them,” Dany Bahar and Greg Wright write.

Over the past 20 years, U.S. authorities have deported more than 1 million immigrants originally from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to their home countries through Mexico. 

Yet of recently deported people originally from these Central American countries, 90% were working-age men (between 15 to 65) with a high school diploma or less. A survey of these deportees found the top jobs they held were in construction, service industries and manufacturing.

The past years of pandemic, warfare and other global economic upsets have pushed many business leaders to reevaluate using supply chains that stretch across the globe, Casas-Alatriste said. At the same time, there are growing concerns over cybersecurity threats and proprietary theft by Russia and China.

“Having huge dependencies on countries that 1) are too far away, and 2) that you don’t share a lot of the same values — it’s too risky,” he said. “The U.S., Mexico and Canada have a good opportunity to build North America again, making it stronger, making it more resilient, integrating their supply chains.”

One solution passed this month: The U.S. is doubling the number of temporary worker visas for nonagricultural jobs, which previously maxed out at 66,000 visas per year for three decades — despite enduring data showing Americans are not filling those jobs. 

Other solutions could include job education programs for employees working in U.S. companies located in Mexico and Central America. A similar German program has shown an increase in the number of skilled workers in high-demand industries.

“Looking at the root causes of migration, people … have the drive to go to the US. They have the need,” Casas-Alatriste said, adding that an increasing number of Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan refugees are seeking asylum at the southern border. 


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