With unemployment at record low, we must welcome immigrants to fill labor gaps before it's too late
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Small businesses, the heart of the American economy, are thriving. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, 23 percent of Main Street businesses are actively looking to expand by hiring more workers. But here’s where the rosy picture gets complicated: Finding quality talent remains a significant roadblock, not just to growth, but to meeting the full sales potential of many American businesses. Consider the most recent NFIB Jobs Report where 38 percent of owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, a record high unchanged from last month. “There is extraordinary competition for workers in this historically tight labor market,” Juanita D. Duggan, president and CEO of NFIB, said. “Small business owners are investing more in their employees to attract and keep qualified workers. Thanks to recent tax cuts and regulatory reforms, owners are able and comfortable investing more in their employees and businesses which further strengthens the economy.”

In fact, a record 37 percent of small business owners have increased overall compensation in hopes of hiring and retaining employees in the current market. But no matter how much businesses pay, it still won’t be enough. With a 49-year low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, there simply aren’t enough qualified Americans to do all the available jobs. And the picture darkens further when we consider our nation’s low birth rate and aging population; baby-boomers are retiring and the next generation of American citizens isn’t big enough to make up the difference.


But there is a solution: immigration reform. I am calling for reform as a long-standing member of the Republican Party and a staunch conservative. I represented the state of Florida at every Republican National Convention between 1976 and 2008—twice as chair of the Florida GOP—and I sat on the Republican National Committee’s Executive Committee for more than three years. But I also believe that in cutting legal immigration by 40 percent, the Trump administration is endangering the national economy. 

Now hear me out, because I’m talking about a labor shortage that threatens to undermine the entire U.S. economy. As a senior partner at an international law firm, I’ve represented clients in fields from STEM, to health care, to construction. I don’t need a survey to see that employers across the board are worried about massive worker shortages. If we want to remain competitive in the global economy, we must attract the talent to fill these gaps—and that means welcoming immigrants.

Just look at STEM fields, an industry which predicts labor shortages of 1 million workers by 2020, according to New American Economy. Just as concerning as health care, where vacant jobs outnumber unemployed workers by more than 10-to-1 in many occupations. Add to this the fact that, between 2000 and 2030, America’s elderly population is expected to increase from 35 million to 71.5 million. You can imagine how much pressure this will put on the U.S. health care system.

Labor-intensive jobs in agriculture, construction, and food services are in the same situation. These industries, which are already heavily reliant on foreign-born works, are actively looking to hire more. For example, my home state of Florida is extremely dependent on a strong tourism industry; it contributes $57 billion dollars and over a million jobs to our state’s economy. And yet we rank third nationally among states with the greatest need for more hospitality workers. In 2015 alone, there were 86,825 postings for available tourism and hospitality jobs. What I’m saying is that we—like the rest of the United States—need immigrants if we want our domestic industries to continue to grow.

Of course, we must protect our borders, vet newcomers and hold law-breakers accountable. But the fearmongering and misinformation about immigrants rarely matches reality. The vast majority of us—I’m a Cuban immigrant who came here at age 11—are here to make a contribution. Above all else, we value family, sacrifice and hard work. We want to be productive, to help our communities thrive.

But if America shuts its doors to foreign labor—both high- and low-skilled--we risk becoming like Japan or other European countries where aging workforces and economies are already faltering or falling flat. It’s unavoidable: A vibrant, young and diverse workforce is required to increase productivity and fuel economic growth nationwide. I urge Democrats and Republicans to put partisanship aside and implement comprehensive immigration reform before it’s too late. It’s the only path that leads us to growth and economic prosperity for all.

Al Cardenas is a Republic strategist and senior partner at the international law firm of Squire Patton Boggs, Miami.