Since 2011, Minnesota wholesaler Bailey Nurseries has tapped into the local refugee community to hire full-time and seasonal workers. It was a win-win situation, to fill open positions and help new neighbors adjust to a different life.
“We just kept working with it because they’re good workers, good people,” Joe Bailey, human resources director at Bailey Nurseries, said of his Karen employees, an ethnic minority from Myanmar displaced by conflict and violence. “They come from tough circumstances.”
But Bailey’s supply of workers is drying up as the Trump Administration clamps down on immigration – especially those claiming to be refugees. Trump may think the country is full, but his policies are hurting employers finding it difficult to hire workers with the unemployment rate at the lowest level in decades and in cities where immigrants have helped to offset the loss of native-born Americans.
“It’s gone way down,” Bailey said. The business employed more than 200 Karen refugees at one point. Now, it employs half that, Bailey said.
In 2017, the flow of refugees dropped significantly as the Trump administration tightened immigration rules and cut the number of refugees the country would accept. Minnesota took in 663 refugees in 2018, down from 3,000 in 2016.
Immigrants, documented or not, and refugees tend to fill gaps in the labor force the pool of U.S. citizens is low, said Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
The outlook for a sustainable U.S. labor force is bleak without a flow of immigrants into the country. Baby boomers are retiring amidst smaller, younger generations. The U.S. fertility plunged to its lowest rate in three decades.
The Pew Research Center projects that immigrants and their U.S.-born children will drive growth in the working-age population through 2035. Without future immigrants, the working-age population would decrease by that year, forecasting a troubling future for employers.
“If you want to keep economic growth going up and if you want higher productivity, you will have to rely on foreign labor,” Mathur said.
In Buffalo, New York, refugees have helped soften the blow of effects from a catastrophic decline in population to 260,000 from 577,000 in 1950.
Upstate New York needs to attract refugees and immigrants to the region, said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo.
“We ought to be first in line,” Hassett said. “Buffalo needs people.”
Confer Plastics, a manufacturer just outside of Buffalo, has continued to hire refugees from Myanmar thanks to word spread by friends and family who have resettled in the area, said the company’s vice president Bob Confer. The business, which currently employs 44 refugees, hasn’t felt the impacts of Trump policy changes at this point.
“We have a very limited labor pool to choose from, so the Burmese have been a godsend,” he said.
Some economists support Trump’s idea that an influx of new workers lowers wage and pushes higher unemployment in the United States.
“When the supply of workers goes up, the price that firms have to pay to hires workers goes down,” George Borjas, professor of economics and the Harvard Kennedy School wrote in POLITICO ahead of the 2016 election. This “immigration surplus” typically hurts low-skilled workers the most, Borjas wrote. Most economists disagree or say the effects are slight. Borjas also noted the benefits of new arrivals, including driving up the total wealth of the population.
While the president has adopted the idea that the country is full, the problem could be that potential workers are not being hired in the places they are most needed.
Skilled immigration policy tends to benefit metro areas instead of heartland communities that are shrinking, according to a recent report from the Economic Innovation Group. The report suggests creating voluntary “Heartland Visas” to place immigrants who come to the United States into willing communities that especially struggle with declining, aging populations.
Farmers show a need for a larger labor pool that can’t be found in the United States.
Employer applications for H-2A guest worker visas, while not a permanent immigration path, have increased.
The program gets expensive for employers because it requires that they cover housing and transportation for workers, said Jerry Untiedt, owner of Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm in Waverly, Minnesota.
Untiedt, who began farming in 1971, noticed that that local population was changing about 20 years ago. The farm usually had success hiring seasonal workers throughout the community, including students and teachers on summer break and retired people.
“We began to notice a significant difference in the sizing of families and the availability of people to service our workforce needs,” he said. “The local workforce we were using continued to shrink.” With fewer refugees being admitted to the United States, Bailey Nurseries is relying more on the guest worker program, which it’s been a part of since 2008.
“Our only other option is importing our workforce,” Bailey said. “They’re great workers, but it’s expensive. I don’t like pulling my workers in from out of state.”