As Georgia faces labor shortage, lawmakers consider solutions from immigrant advocates

A bipartisan group of lawmakers studies barriers holding immigrants back from labor force

In Georgia and throughout the country, the pace of the post-COVID economic recovery has been slowed by a persistent challenge: labor shortages.

Earlier this month, the state’s labor commissioner told the AJC the situation is unprecedented: “We have never had this many jobs sitting open.” As those shortages drag on, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been meeting to learn about ways Georgia immigrants could be part of the solution, and more fully contribute to the state’s economy.

The Georgia House Study Committee on Innovative Ways to Maximize Global Talent — led by chairman Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock — was greenlighted by a unanimous vote during the 2021 legislative session.

On Thursday, the committee held the last of three legislative meetings, where they heard from industry leaders and immigration advocates about the barriers that prevent foreign-born Georgians from maximizing their participation in the workforce – and potential solutions state government could take to address them.

In comments to the committee, Darlene Lynch, a representative of Georgia’s Business & Immigration Partnership, noted that nearly 1 in 5 foreign-born Georgians with a college degree is either unemployed or employed in a low-wage job, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue each year, a state of affairs she dubbed “brain waste.”

“We know that Georgia has a deep pool of global talent. It’s the envy of the South. And we know we have businesses that need that,” she added. “It’s the perfect time to maximize the talent that we have to meet the business needs that we have.”

Barriers and solutions

Among the recommendations lawmakers repeatedly heard was the need to expand immigrants’ access to education in public colleges. Advocates said this could be achieved by urging the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia to be more flexible in its recognition of education credentials earned abroad, and move away from requirements to present diplomas or original copies of transcripts, which some immigrants and refugees don’t have ready access to.

Jaime Rangel is the Georgia Immigration Manager at the pro-immigration group, as well as a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that has shielded hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. On Thursday, he told lawmakers it would be a boon to both the immigrant community and the state’s economy to extend in-state tuition benefits for Georgia DACA-holders like himself.

Jaime Rangel a DACA recipient now works to advance immigrant rights.

Credit: Submitted by: John Simpson

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Credit: Submitted by: John Simpson

“We grew up here. We know no other country … We are not asking to pay a lower rate than any Georgia citizen. We are just asking for a fighting chance to pay in-state tuition in the only state we know and grew up in.”

Twenty-one other states have extended in-state tuition benefits to DACA-holders, including Florida and Texas.

Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways, said refugees should also be classified as in-state students as soon as they are resettled in Georgia. It currently takes a full year for those immigrant groups to formally establish residency.

“I think we have a wonderful opportunity right now. We have a large group of people who are coming from Afghanistan into Georgia who have language ability, have experience working for U.S. organizations [and] could be certified quickly,” she said.

On Thursday, lawmakers also heard about the limits of existing English as a Second Language (ESL) community programs, which advocates say don’t fully prepare students for English-language college curricula, vocational programs, or GED programs.

“While there are lots of English classes available in the community, you could graduate at the highest level and not meet the standard for technical college,” Mixon said.

Melissa Ramirez works with immigrant families through Corners Outreach, a Gwinnett-based organization that focuses on helping students in Title I schools — those with a high proportion of low-income students according to federal standards. She said funding ESL programs targeted to languages needed in specific in-demand industries, be it cybersecurity or construction, could boost immigrants’ economic contributions.

“There are ESL programs that are technical and that’s a huge opportunity to tap into. Most families speak enough to get by, but if they can be empowered to learn the technical language in the industry that would help them much more.”

Members of the Georgia health care industry, which already relies significantly on foreign-born labor, also advocated for a more streamlined licensing process for clinicians trained abroad, and for the creation of programs that would make it easier for foreign doctors to enter the health care industry in Georgia.

According to data from the Emory University School of Medicine, the shortage of primary care physicians in Georgia is worse than the national average.

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.