Opinion: Georgia must explore immigration reform to keep workforce, economy growing

Demonstrators rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) outside the Capitol, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Washington, on the second day of the federal shutdown. Democrats have been seeking a deal to protect the "Dreamers," who have been shielded against deportation by DACA, which President Donald Trump halted last year. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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Demonstrators rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) outside the Capitol, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Washington, on the second day of the federal shutdown. Democrats have been seeking a deal to protect the "Dreamers," who have been shielded against deportation by DACA, which President Donald Trump halted last year. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Two years in, it is clear that the pandemic has created never before seen or expected challenges for our workforce and economy. While state leaders reconvene under the Gold Dome to address a number of priorities, tackling the labor shortage is top of mind, especially considering that a weakened economy could jeopardize Georgia’s economic standing as the top state for doing business. Today, the state, much like the rest of the nation, is facing a unique labor challenge with hundreds of thousands of job openings and a lack of workers to fill them. Businesses are having to limit store hours, raise prices and restructure their entire operational plans to stay afloat.

Workforce development strategies that once worked are no longer driving businesses forward. What we need now are innovative solutions to get workers back on the job, and fortunately, there is undeniable potential in our state’s untapped immigrant communities.

Last fall, the Georgia House Study Committee on Innovative Ways to Maximize Global Talent held several legislative meetings with immigration advocates, business experts and community leaders to explore the potential benefits that pro-immigration policies could bring to the state. They examined tuition equity, increased flexibility in work permits, licensing process reform, among other solutions and sparked movement around substantial, bipartisan legislation.

Recently, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Georgia General Assembly that could boost the economy by helping eliminate academic barriers for Georgia students with certain refugee, special immigrant, or humanitarian parole status.

As the committee discussed, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp recently emphasized, there is a strong correlation between access to education opportunities and a robust workforce. In fact, a similar policy for extending access to in-state tuition for young undocumented Georgians, otherwise known as Dreamers, could add as much as $10 million to the economy each year by generating better-paying jobs and increasing tax contributions. As evidence has shown us, Dreamers in Georgia already are contributing more than $100 million in state and local taxes.

This type of policy is exactly what we need to move forward. While state lawmakers continue working to tap into the state’s immigrant and refugee communities, it is also the responsibility of our representatives in Washington to move immigration reform that recognizes the substantial role that immigrants play in our state’s economic success. Recently, the president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce highlighted the importance of retaining and recruiting a robust workforce to build back Georgia’s economy and that federal immigration reform is necessary to achieve these goals.

Today, one in eight Georgia workers is an immigrant, making up 13 percent of our total labor force and filling roles in industries ranging from farming and agriculture, manufacturing, food services, and health care, all of which are strained by the statewide labor shortage. Further, undocumented immigrants contribute $7.1 billion to Georgia’s economy annually, and over two-thirds have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years. Beyond the fact that establishing an earned pathway to citizenship could add $149 billion to Georgia’s economy annually, our workforce would get the boost it needs.

Immigration reform can change lives as well as the trajectory of our economy. I applaud the ongoing efforts at the state level and urge Congress to take action at the federal level to modernize our broken system and ensure we bounce back stronger than ever. Lawmakers in Washington have the opportunity to pursue bills such as the Dream Act, Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and Bipartisan Border Solutions Act that would improve the legal immigration system, protect dreamers and essential workers, empower doctors and nurses, and protect the border. I encourage our leaders to work together and explore all opportunities for necessary and critical reforms to jumpstart the state’s workforce.

David Casas is director of grassroots operations, The Libre Initiative Georgia. He is a former Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives from Gwinnett County.