Dairy farm immigrant worker

An immigrant worker milks cows in the parlor of a dairy farm in Buffalo County. Wisconsin dairy farmers need more lenient rules for hiring immigrants.

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

When Congress and the Trump administration begin work on immigration reform, Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should make clear our state’s position: Wisconsin needs more legal immigration, not less.

A key word is “legal.”

The race for president focused intently on the millions of people living in the United States illegally, and whether to let most of them stay. It’s a complicated problem. Mass deportations aren’t realistic or humane.

But President-elect Donald Trump also has suggested he might make it tougher to immigrate legally to the United States, out of concern that immigrants take jobs away from American citizens.

Wisconsin’s experience contradicts some of Trump’s assumptions. In fact, restricting immigration by making it tougher for foreign-born people to gain visas to work here would hinder the state’s economy in ways that threaten growth. Consider the evidence.

One of Wisconsin’s highest barriers to economic growth is a limited supply of skilled workers. Since 2010, the state has been losing 10,000 people per year in net domestic outflow as our residents move to other states and we fail to attract new residents. Add a declining birth rate, and Wisconsin businesses cannot find the employees they need.

Seventy percent of Wisconsin companies responding to a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey reported difficulty finding employees this year. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce projects that over the next 10 years, 100,000 jobs in the Milwaukee metro area will go without workers to fill them. Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields (known as STEM positions) are especially difficult to fill.

Wisconsin’s chief open avenue for new workers has been immigration from other countries. And opportunities exist to take even greater advantage of legal immigration — if the right policies are in place — because Wisconsin has assets attractive to immigrants.

A chief asset is our university system. About 4,500 foreign students attend UW-Madison. Statewide, the total is more than twice as large. That’s brainpower that could fill and create jobs in the state. One of every eight STEM workers in Wisconsin with an advanced degree is already an immigrant.

Currently, visa requirements to retain foreign students in Wisconsin are costly, restrictive and self-destructive. In 2011, 51 percent of patents awarded to the University of Wisconsin System included at least one foreign-born inventor with no clear path to gain citizenship. As former Google chairman Eric Schmidt put it: “Of all the crazy rules in our government, the craziest bar none is that we take the smartest people in the world, we bring them to America, we give them Ph.D.s in technical science, and we kick them out to go found great companies outside America.”

Another Wisconsin asset attractive to immigrants is the dairy industry. To find the skilled labor they need, dairy farms recruit from foreign countries. Four of every 10 dairy farm workers is now an immigrant. But visas are geared to seasonal farm labor, not full-time dairying. Without more flexible policies, the industry’s efforts to legally fill jobs will be at risk.

Reform is required to make it easier for Wisconsin to attract immigrants to fuel our economic growth. Without more immigration, the work force will be unable to meet demand, businesses will look elsewhere to expand, and Wisconsin’s prosperity will be in jeopardy.

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