Share This Story Above Image Credit: Maria Morales, her son Carlos, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School, is part of the family team that runs their janitorial services business, which is looking to expand, but is struggling to find enough willing and qualified workers to hire. (Cody Boston | Flatland)
Courting criticism from both the left and right, President Joe Biden spent little time addressing the immigration conundrum in his State of the Union address.
Still, he underscored an economic reality that is increasingly attracting the attention of businesses, economists, and just about anyone who needs help signing up for vacancies in the United States.
“If we don’t pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least we pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border and a pathway to citizenship for ‘dreamers’, those with temporary status, agricultural workers, essential workers,” Biden said.
Creating a path to citizenship for the nation’s 10.5 million undocumented people has long been on a Democratic wish list.
That vast number of less-skilled workers without work clearance, people who don’t qualify for the restricted visas for those with degree-level skills, are a growing target.
Economists say those workers are crucial workers the United States needs as the nation finds itself with more aging people out of the job market than younger workers to replace them.
A recent edition of ‘Flatland in Focus’ focused heavily on hiring graduate migrant workers, people with engineering, technology and medical skills.
“Flatland in Focus” on Kansas City PBS
Biden’s comments about low-skilled workers at the other end of the pay scale illustrated an everyday reality for Overland Park business owner Maria Morales.
The inability of job seekers to obtain authorization to work is an obstacle to the expansion of KCK Maintenance Solutions, Morales’ family-owned cleaning business.
It is trying to get more contracts for maintenance of commercial buildings, government offices and construction cleaning.
But it needs more reliable and efficient workers who can handle the job.
Morales said the company turns away about 80% of people applying for the positions, which start at about $15 an hour. The reason is the lack of authorization to work, the approval by the immigration authorities confirming that the person can work legally.
“I’m unable to hire these people because they just don’t qualify for the job,” Morales said. “So, it’s definitely very difficult.”
The vast majority of candidates are women. And many are single mothers.
Their countries of origin often include El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. They increasingly include Colombia and Venezuela.
Morales started his business about three years ago after working for other cleaning companies for about 10 years.
Morales, who immigrated at age 18 from Acapulco, Mexico, speaks eloquently about the American dream, the opportunities she found here, and her hope that others can too.
The American Dream, she said, brought stability to her family, a peaceful life and the ability to support her children.
Two sons, a daughter and her husband also help run the business.
Biden’s speech also drew on the situation of Dina Rosales.
At age 26, he is the general manager of KCK Maintenance Solutions.
Rosales is also a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. DACA is a program that gives her work authorization and a driver’s license, but not a clear path to citizenship.
DACA caters to people who were brought to the United States, without the proper papers, as children. Most often, this was from their parents. The child had no choice in the matter, and many don’t even learn about their status until they try to get a driver’s license or get the kind of first-time job that many teenagers hold.
Rosales immigrated from Honduras at age 5, with her mother and sister.
DACA arose out of a lack of support for legislation to be passed to legalize so-called “dreamers,” students without documented status. The first version of the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was introduced in 2001.
The DACA program was created under the Obama administration and continues to face judicial challenges.
Often it falls to Rosales to tell prospective housekeeping employees that they cannot be hired without employment status.
“It’s just hard,” she said. “It’s hard to read that disappointment in their eyes when you have to push them away. And as an immigrant myself, you know, I see myself.
“It’s hard to read that disappointment in their eyes when you have to push them away. And as an immigrant myself, you know, I see myself.
Dina Rosales, general manager of KCK Maintenance Solutions
In January, the president and chief executive officer of the US Chamber of Commerce proposed doubling the number of immigrants allowed to arrive and work legally each year.
“I talk to CEOs and leaders of companies of all sizes, industries and regions every day and one person is told this: This workforce shortage is a crisis. It is contributing to supply chain disruptions and rising inflation. It’s undermining business growth,” said Suzanne P. Clark, the Speaker of the United States House, in a recent speech.
Clark said the nation had 11 million job vacancies.
“We must double the number of people who immigrate legally to the United States AND we must create a permanent solution for the ‘dreamers’, those young men and women who know no other home and who contribute to their communities, but whose legal status is in a limbo.”
The labor shortage is linked to inflation, which has increased by 6.4% in the last year. The unemployment rate is currently at 3.4%, the lowest level since May 1969. Competition for scarce workers drives up wages and ultimately the prices of goods and services.
Local labor expert Judy Ancel also doesn’t believe continued hiring difficulties will convince Congress to overhaul visa systems, or the imbalance that exists for less-skilled Latino immigrants, who have few legal options to immigrate.
“Our immigration policy is so discriminatory against Latinos, unless they’re Cuban,” Ancel said.
Ancel is president of the Cross Border Network, a Kansas City-based organization that advocates for human rights in Latin America. He also directed the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s career education program for nearly 30 years.
Mira Mdivani, a corporate immigration attorney in Overland Park, also doesn’t expect much to change for this category of workers, despite labor needs within the economy. Mdivani founded the Mdivani Corporate Immigration Law Firm.
Visas for seasonal workers, who could meet Kansas’ agricultural needs, are limited to 66,000 a year, he said.
The corporate clients he recommends don’t even try for that category. Their chances are too low because the need is in the millions nationwide, Mdivani said.
“On the one hand, the government wants employers to do things legally,” he said. “But on the other hand, they basically scoff at the situation to only provide 66,000 visas per season. It’s a joke.”
Mary Sanchez is a senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.
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