AUSTIN (Nexstar) — From business-friendly Texas, U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh said the nation’s broken immigration system is only further adding to the nation’s workforce issues.
“The lack of action on immigration reform is only hurting, quite honestly, corporate America,” Walsh said at a SXSW panel Monday. “We have I think anywhere from 11 to 13 million people in this country that are undocumented, that are working in some shape or form and there should be a pathway for those folks become citizens.”
Texas has 4.8% unemployment, higher than the national average of 3.8% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says industries like health care, construction and services are all areas immigrants can and will work in, if given the opportunity.
“Employers are really scrambling to find workers. At the same time, we have so many people showing up at the border…wanting to live and work in the United States and contribute,” she said. “And if there was a way legally to match those willing workers with willing employers, that would really be to the benefit of everyone.”
Austin-based immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch says for some of her clients, becoming a citizen has been a decades-long process.
“They want a better life for themselves and their families, and they want to do it the right way,” she said.
She said one area for improvement expanding the number and type of visas available, like short-term seasonal work visas for those looking to work in America temporarily.
“We need broader and more long-term lease options that may not be seasonal worker, but may also not be permanent residents so that people who want to come and work for a company for several years don’t have to struggle through the H1 visa lottery, for example.”
She said backlogs and lengthy wait periods for people applying for citizenship are more than inconveniences for those going through the process.
“Employers who need to hire foreign labor…aren’t able to do so because of the bureaucratic hurdles and the limitations on visas. People who are trying to petition family can’t reunite with their family members quickly,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said. “The whole system is not an accurate reflection of the need and it creates this massive problem of undocumented immigration and a struggling economy.”
The number of green cards available each year is a set number, which Congress has not updated since 1990.
“We really need a mechanism so that the numbers can change over time. When there’s strong demand for workers, we could bring in more immigrants and when we have high unemployment rates, we could bring in fewer immigrants. But having just this number that we’re stuck with is really not serving our national interest,” Gelatt said.
In an email statement, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzalez agreed that there needs to be bipartisan reform at the Congressional level, saying that America welcomes hardworking immigrants legally.
“There is absolutely an appetite from Republicans for bipartisan immigration reform, especially when it comes to folks who want to come here legally and work. There are several communities in my district with sister cities across the border in Mexico, like El Paso and Juarez or Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, that have a large percent of the workforce that travels across the border every day,” Gonzalez said.
Even Walsh acknowledged the hurdles for legislating immigration reform federally, joking when asked about why there hasn’t been any — “you’ve got the wrong guy in the chair.”
“I just think I think it’s become a political issue and it really shouldn’t be,” he said.