Romer: Immigration reform can help address our nation’s labor shortage
The workforce shortage continues to be an incredible challenge for businesses across the nation and, unfortunately, Colorado is no exception.
The pandemic forced thousands of folks out of the workforce, leaving many businesses without the employees they need to keep their doors open. Businesses that survived the pandemic are now facing the reality of reducing operating hours and even the possibility of closing because there aren’t enough employees to meet their needs.
As president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, Vail Valley’s primary business association, I know firsthand the challenges that Eagle County’s businesses are facing. I’ve also seen that we are not alone. Many other industries are feeling the effects of the workforce shortage, as well. There are an estimated 212,000 unfilled jobs in Colorado. Unless something is done to support our state’s businesses in this challenging time, these empty positions will become empty businesses.
The positive news is that this challenge is not insurmountable. There are clear ways that our lawmakers in Denver and Washington can support our businesses by expanding their access to new employees. To be specific, we should give businesses greater access to a severely underutilized population: our nation’s immigrants.
Today, there are around 550,000 immigrants in Colorado, comprising nearly an eighth of our workforce. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrants have stepped into the breach and helped keep the doors open in some of our most important industries, like health care, tourism, and construction. They’ve also proven themselves to be an incredibly important pillar of our economy, paying an estimated $5.8 billion in taxes each year and owning an annual spending power of over $15 billion.
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Unfortunately, due to shortcomings and bureaucratic hurdles in our broken immigration system, many more immigrants have been forced to stay on the sidelines and outside our workforce where they could be of incredible support to thousands of businesses across Colorado.
In Denver, our state lawmakers should prioritize removing barriers to accessing the state’s ASSET law. ASSET, which was first passed in 2013, has opened in-state tuition to many of our state’s undocumented immigrants, allowing them to attend college and secure degrees. With their diplomas in hand, these immigrants have entered our workforce and made incredible contributions. By expanding this program, removing unnecessary hurdles, and allowing more immigrants to obtain in-state tuition, we can generate more qualified candidates for businesses and industries in need of new employees.
Simultaneously, Congress can further support the business community and all Coloradans by finally addressing the archaic nightmare that is our failed immigration system. Last updated in 1986, our immigration system is out of date and in desperate need of reform. We need an immigration system built for the 21st century — a system that supports our nation’s businesses and understands their growing need for more employees.
Congress must implement immigration reforms like the ones the House of Representatives passed last year as a part of its budget reconciliation package. These reforms, while not a cure-all for our workforce shortages, would make an immense difference for thousands of businesses across the nation.
With most Americans in support of immigration reform, members of Congress must take advantage of the incredible opportunity they have in front of them. I urge our elected officials, including Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, to get immigration relief across the finish line and ensure that more businesses can find the employees they need to stay open. All Coloradans will benefit as a result.
Chris Romer is president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at VailValleyPartnership.com