Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of features detailing immigrants and refugees within Nebraska communities.
The United States has a rich history of immigrants who came to the U.S. and helped build the industries and communities that thrive today. As birth rates decline nationally, immigrants and refugees are once again filling important roles in industries and communities.
Declining Birth Rates
As Nebraska Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Slone noted in his 2023 priority briefing, birth rates in Nebraska alone have dropped 22% from 1960 to 2015.
As such, finding talent to fill open positions has become increasingly difficult. Eighty percent of Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry members named talent as their No. 1 challenge to growing their business in 2022.
With birth rates declining, and unemployment sitting at 2.5%, there is no simple solution. In Sloane’s words, “the cavalry isn’t coming.”
“The state of the national economy is in a position that we haven’t been in for a very long time,” he said. “I’m 65 and for most of my life we’ve had too few jobs for too many people. That’s switched in the last four to five years, primarily because of declining birth rates, and a rapidly expanding economy that is going to continue for 15-20 years.
“Absent of immigration, it’s really hard to know how our economy is going to continue to grow.”
According to the 2022 Omaha Skills Gap Report, projections for several college and non-college degree occupations indicate hundreds of open positions as demand outpaces supply. The occupations include everything from business operations to production.
To fill those gaps, the Nebraska Chamber is advocating for not only increased revenue directed at apprenticeship and community colleges, but also an assessment of the current immigration process.
“One of the key elements that we’re going to be focusing on is the work visa system, which right now is underfunded and understaffed,” Sloane said.
What’s the holdup?
When speaking about immigration versus refugees, Immigrant Legal Center (ILC) Legal Director Anna Deal said it’s important to note the difference.
“Refugees are processed outside of the United States,” she said. “One year after their arrival they’re eligible to apply for a green card, and most of them do. Immigrants are the broader category.
“All refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees.”
Obtaining green cards in a timely manner has become unrealistic as outdated laws, underfunding and understaffing create long queue lines, specifically for Latin American nationalities. Deal described a scenario for a U.S. citizen petitioning for a green card for a sibling living in Mexico.
“The wait time for somebody who applies today is estimated to be 162 years,” she said. “That’s the most extreme example, but wait times of 20-30-40 years is pretty typical for other categories and other countries of origin.”
In its most basic explanation, the U.S. immigration system is laid out by different categories, and under those categories, a ranking system and a permit head count for each country.
Koley Jessen Shareholder Ryan Sevcik, who specializes in immigration and employment and labor laws, noted that counties such as Mexico, India, China and the Philippines have the longest wait lines.
“Those countries have historically had a higher influx of immigration into the United States as compared to European Union countries,” he said.
Aside from green cards, options for entering the country are still limited, even for temporary workers. Sevcik said companies who want to sponsor an immigrant need to prove that the talent isn’t available in the U.S. already.
For example, relief for hospitality companies and farmers has come from hiring non-immigrants with temporary work visas.
Agriculture companies can utilize the H-2A temporary work-visa program. Non- agriculture companies, such as a ski resort, can utilize the H-2B temporary work-visa program.
In both cases, companies have to identify a peak season and prove that they cannot find U.S. citizens to fill the positions by testing the labor market. For non-agriculture companies there’s an additional hurdle: there are only 66,000 visas provided each year.
“At the end of the day, a company may say “we need 30 workers, we found two. So we still need 28,” Sevcik said. “They might get those workers in the lottery, or the cap might have been hit and they can’t get those workers.
“I think that is a big frustration point. That category is oversubscribed and meeting the demand for those visas far exceeds the supply.”
Companies typically contract through recruiting agencies to find available workers in foreign countries, adding another expense.
There are also programs to help companies retain students who while studying abroad interned with a company and want to continue their employment. But, again, the need has to be proven.
For companies looking to fill positions that don’t require a degree, the shortage is forcing them to reframe their approach.
Manufacturing and food processing, for example, have historically been industries with large immigrant populations as entry-level positions don’t necessarily require a high level of English comprehension or education.
In Nebraska, Sloane cited a study that reported manufacturing, which includes meat processing, as responsible for 37.6% of the GDP.
Today, immigrants represent approximately 61% of the meat processing workforce in Omaha according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-three percent emigrated from Latin America or the Caribbean.
“[Tyson Foods] employs over 100,000 team members across 30 states, and at least a third of them have an immigration status of some kind,” said Senior Manager Garrett Dolan.
The company employs 17 different categories of immigrants, the biggest being green card holders, many of whom haven’t naturalized.
The question for Tyson has become how can they support current team members and build a reputation as a great place to work?
“The No. 1 issue for our team members is citizenship,” he said. “We know that when team members become citizens … they feel like a part of the community.”
Deal said one major benefit of naturalizing is relief from the fear of deportation.
“[Green card holders] are not safe from the risk of deportation until they have naturalized,” she said.
Immigrant Connection founder Zach Szmara said another benefit to citizenship is the ability to request green cards for family members.
“The vast majority, over two-thirds of people that have a green card, could take that final step and become a citizen, but there’s something holding them back,” he said. “Sometimes it’s money and access to legal services, and sometimes it’s lack of knowledge that they’re eligible.
“Oftentimes, it’s fear of the citizenship test.”
In addition to offering ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, Tyson works with Immigrant Connection to bring legal services to their employees. Immigrant Connection utilizes a Department of Justice program that enables citizens to become accredited and offer immigration services.
Szmara, a pastor in Logansport, Indiana, founded the nonprofit in 2014.
“There’s a Tyson in our community, and our community has the largest population of immigrants per capita in the state of Indiana,” Szmara said. “I found that the largest need is access to immigration legal services.”
After becoming accredited he started to build a volunteer army that now has 58 DOJ-accredited individuals with offices in 28 states.
“The reason we can build access in unique places is because all of our offices are in churches, so we cut the overhead,” Szmara said. “Then rather than trying to find experienced people to hire, we actually train the community; people who [care about] their community, their neighbors, their friends.”
For Tyson employees, talks take place at work during their shift, allowing individuals access without having to take valuable time off and travel to a lawyer, saving thousands of dollars.
Since starting the Tyson Immigration Partnership (TIP) three years ago in seven plants, the program has grown to 40 plants and is looking to help 4,000 individuals this year. It’s estimated that about 1,000 will seek citizenship. To make this happen, Tyson is investing an additional $1.5 million into hiring qualified help, such as Immigrant Connection, to assist team members.
Tyson offers ESL classes as part of its online Upward Academy, which since 2016 has also offered GED, financial literacy and digital literacy classes in addition to citizenship classes. In April 2022 Tyson announced a partnership with Guild providing free higher education courses to all employees.
The program includes access to more than 175 programs from over 35 universities and learning providers. The four-year, $60 million investment will cover 100% of all tuition, books, and fees for team members.
Many employers, however, don’t have the capital to provide such assistance.
Speaking of her family’s experience as emigrants from Mexico, ILC Associate Legal Director Roxana Cortés-Mills said those who work labor-intensive jobs with long hours simply don’t have available time to access classes.
“To be able to naturalize, you have to be able to pass an English and a civics test,” she said. “Those are barriers for individuals that are focused on trying to provide for their families.”
Recognizing this challenge, Bellevue University opened a Plaza Comunitaria in August 2021. The Plaza provides free courses for Spanish-speaking immigrants to begin and complete their elementary and secondary education in Spanish.
“So they can get into a position to do a GED or adult basic education [classes] here in the United States,” said President Dr. Mary Hawkins.
Additionally, the curriculum is created by the Mexican National Institute for Adult Education, and individuals can receive official educational certificates and diplomas from the Mexican government.
BU also opened El Camino Latino Center to help guide Latino students pursuing higher education. Gina Ponce, director of Latino community outreach, said many students think they have to know what career they’re interested in before going to college.
“[But] I would say 90% of the time students don’t know what companies in [the Metropolitan Omaha area] do,” she said.
The Center houses six community partners that offer students a glimpse at different industries, life skills training and mentoring.
Other partners include Heartland Workers Center, El Mundo Latino Newspaper, US Bank, Goodwill Industries and CNW Alliance.
What about DACA?
For those who were brought to the U.S. as children and may, or may not, have received DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) designations, attending college can be a challenge as they cannot apply for federal financial aid.
College of Saint Mary President Dr. Maryanne Stevens noted that CSM has been supporting undocumented women for 16 years with its Misericordia Scholarship, which predates DACA. The scholarship covers room and board and tuition who meet admissions criteria.
The conviction to support undocumented or DACA women comes from the university’s Catholic roots.
“Pope Francis, and many of the bishops, have spoken about what they call welcoming the stranger,” Stevens said.
Currently, this scholarship is supporting 40 women with the Misericordia Scholarship. In December 2022 CSM partnered with TheDream.US to bolster the program.
“We’re a higher learning institution where we know that education is transformational in their lives, and the lives of those directly around them will be impacted by something like this,” said Katty Petak, who is overseeing the program.
CSM is the only university in Nebraska that TheDream.US has selected as a partner. Additionally, CSM staff mentors scholarship recipients while TheDream.US provides additional learning opportunities and access to internships.
At the end of the day, those working in the immigration space want to emphasize the impact, economic and otherwise, that immigrants have on the community.
“For over two years, I’ve been traveling the state talking about this workforce issue and the need for legal immigration as a fundamental part of the solution,” Slone said. “When people understand the data, and understand who immigrants are, there’s no objection whatsoever.”
For a small, to medium-sized business, employment-sponsored visas or assisting with legal fees may be too costly. However, being vocal with state representatives is just as important.
“Any potential legislative change in the immigration space is federal,” Deal said. “Contacting your elected representatives and letting them know your opinion is important. Whether it’s a path to permanent status for DACA or long wait times for family-based applicants.”
Deal and Cortés-Mills agreed that following politics can be difficult. They recommended following Nebraska Appleseed and ACLU of Nebraska for updates on topics such as immigration.