Across the globe, there are 32.5 million refugees seeking safety, many of them adults seeking work. At the same time, severe labor shortages in the United States and many other high-income countries have left businesses clamoring for workers.
The United States can help address both problems (and more) through bipartisan immigration reform — and states can be part of new solutions with innovative ideas that could act as the foundation for immigration federalism.
The three of us have connections to Iowa, where the Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services recently announced a program that supports refugees from around the world, with a focus on Afghan people in particular. That includes providing grants to organizations that enhanced “community integration, English proficiency, digital literacy, banking and financial planning, transportation, health and wellness, services for older refugees and youth supports.”
Iowa alone has over 75,000 job openings. That may seem a minute number compared with the 11 million jobs open nationally. But these shortages are depleting the state’s ability to meet growing manufacturing and service demands. Businesses are begging for workers at local economic development meetings. Employers are struggling particularly with shortages in key mid-skill industries, like health care, information and technology and tourism and hospitality.
So not only should states lead in improving welcoming efforts for refugees, but Democratic and Republican governors should also have the opportunity to weigh in on the specific immigration needs of small businesses, manufacturers and families.
States can innovate in three ways. The first — and probably the toughest — is at the federal level, through Congress. Recent bipartisan efforts in Washington, D.C., to address immigration and border issues fell through, but lawmakers made significant progress and suggest that reform is possible.
There is precedent for innovative congressional immigration policy that involves states. For example, in 2017, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, introduced legislation that would allow states to devise guest worker programs for their expanding work forces.
The bill was modeled after Canada’s successful Provincial Nominee Program. In the Johnson proposal, states would require approval from the Department of Homeland Security and from a state legislature. Workers could even move jobs but would be required to remain in their state of sponsorship unless that state had a reciprocity agreement with other states.
The second option for innovation is through action by the president and his administration in the executive branch. The United States and other countries could establish a so-called global skill partnership, a bilateral migration agreement that would allow U.S. employers to train workers to obtain valuable skills; that training could be done either in the United States or abroad, and then workers could come to the U.S. states that need them. Creating a pathway for individuals to live and work in Iowa and other states would ease the burden on America’s asylum system. Moreover, it would allow employers to train people in a way that’s tailored to the specific requirements of their businesses.
In this sort of partnership, immigrants would receive job training and could choose to come to the states that welcomed them, or they could remain at home, stabilizing those economies and taking pressure off our borders. Governors, as well as business and educational leaders, could call for more vulnerable immigrant populations to be trained to fill specific local labor needs.
The third option is within the states themselves. Some states are taking control of immigration through licensing reform. According to a 2021 Nursing Education study, four counties in Washington State were among the top 15 in the nation with the highest primary care worker shortages. (Nationwide, the shortage is expected to reach up to 124,000 doctors by 2034.) The state passed legislation offering a limited license for international medical graduates to gain clinical experience. (This doesn’t interact with federal law, since it only affects refugees who are already in the state.) By revising these guidelines, Washington has licensed about 10 foreign medical providers. Together, those physicians have treated an estimated 20,000 state residents.
You might be surprised to see Governor Reynolds and Senator Johnson, both Republicans, leading immigration reform. But that is happening because businesses in states like Iowa and Wisconsin need workers. The Iowa Business Council has been pushing immigration reform for years to grow the state’s economy and keep employers in the area.
As current and former Iowans, we have been inspired by the administration of Gov. Robert D. Ray, a Republican who served from 1969 to 1983. He is perhaps best remembered for his humanitarian efforts to assist refugees in relocating to our state in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It is this kind of forward-thinking, compassionate and savvy leadership we need today.
With Republican and Democratic governors involved, state programs that open doors for people in need while boosting our nation’s businesses are an investment in states’ futures.
Kristie De Peña (@kdpindc) is the vice president for policy and the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center. Robert Leonard (@RobertLeonard) is the news director for the radio stations KNIA and KRLS in Knoxville, Iowa. David Oman was a chief of staff to the Iowa governors Robert D. Ray and Terry Branstad and served as a chair of the Iowa Republican Party from 1985 to 1993.
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