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Robert Leonard and Matt Russell: Why rural America needs immigrants

We need smart policy like immigration reform for sustained growth.

Magazine, Immigration, By Robert Leonard and Matt Russell | Special to The New York Times

Knoxville, Iowa • Rural America has a growth problem. Business and industry desperately need workers, but the domestic labor pool is shallow, and the nation’s birthrate is slowing.

There’s no better place to help expand our economy than in rural communities like ours. We need smart public policy for sustained growth — and immigration reform would be a big part of it.

The Iowa Business Council, a group made up of representatives of the largest corporations in the state, have been asking for immigration reform for years to help solve our labor woes.

Plenty of research shows that flexible visa programs run federally or by the states could address this problem quickly.

Help-wanted signs are up all around town. There are help-wanted ads playing on our local radio station, in our local newspapers and all over the internet. Listen to your favorite national podcast here and you just might hear a targeted help-wanted ad for our ZIP code. Our county, Marion, is blessed with a strong agricultural and manufacturing base and is doing relatively well. The median household income in the county is $61,038, just a notch below the state median of $62,843. About 8 percent of us live in poverty.

Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, agrees that the reason we have so many jobs open is that we don’t have enough people to fill them.

“One of the bright spots in the Iowa economy is the fact that the ag sector seems to be thriving,” he said, “especially in animal production and in food production. They will not thrive and grow if they are not able to continue to attract and retain immigrant labor.”

Even before the pandemic, we didn’t have enough workers to fill open jobs. A recent report from the Marion County Development Commission shows that we had 3.3 percent unemployment in March 2020. There were 17,340 individuals working, with an estimated 1,113 job openings and 306 initial and continuing unemployment claims.

Today our unemployment rate is about the same. The numbers from June show only a slight increase to 3.5 percent unemployment. We simply don’t have enough people in our county or in the state to fill the open positions. Raising wages might bring some of those unemployed individuals back to work, but we still won’t have enough workers.

It is a conservative county (in 2020, Donald Trump won it with 66 percent of the vote). So if you ask around town why there are so many job openings, the answer is pretty much always the same — welfare is too easy to get, especially under President Biden, and people don’t want to work. They are lazy, on the dole. The Biden administration had increased unemployment benefits by $300 through Sept. 6, but many states are refusing those benefits. At least 25 states, including Iowa, are rejecting this federal benefit.

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