Volunteer workers are right at the border | Opinion
For more than a year, our country aspired to restart the economy. But now that businesses are open again, employers are wondering where all the workers have gone.
In my hometown of Durango, Colorado, labor shortages have deeply affected the entire community. One of the business owners is Juvenal Corona from Mexico who is a co-owner of Nayarit, one of Durango’s most popular Mexican restaurants. Since the COVID restrictions were lifted in the spring, he’s understaffed and says he’s never worked harder in his 20 years in the restaurant business.
The main reason he cites: The booming real estate market, as well as historically high rents which have made it difficult to recruit employees.
“In my 10 years with Nayarit, we never closed due to a lack of workers,” Corona explained. “But recently we have been forced to close each of our sites one day a week.” He and his staff are doing their best; all he asks is that customers “show a little more compassion when it comes to waiting for their orders.”
Like many restaurants, Nayarit depends on a combination of native-born workers and immigrants to function. In recent months, however, neither group has shown up.
Besides the lack of housing, another factor is the low wages in the hospitality sector. Yet Michael French, who heads the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, is not convinced that the shortage is confined to the service sector: “What is happening is ubiquitous in all industries and wage categories” , he said. “I believe we are just beginning to understand the challenges of labor shortages. I think we are in a workforce transition.
Part of this transition – in Durango and elsewhere in the country – involves the demographic shift in our country.
The United States is aging. At the start of the 20th century, the typical resident of the nation was 23 years old. The average citizen today is 38 years old. And for white Americans, who make up 86% of Durango’s population, the median age is now 58.
In addition, fertility rates are in free fall. At 1.6 children per woman, birth rates are now at their lowest level since 1979. Thanks to the pandemic, birth rates have fallen further.
Not so long ago, the constant influx of young migrants helped the U.S. economy offset aging workers and low birth rates. But immigration to this country peaked long ago in 1910, when nearly 15% of the population was born abroad.
It was only after World War II that government-sponsored initiatives like the Bracero program sparked a new wave of immigration. In 2010, immigrants again made up just over 14% of the country’s population.
However, today, instead of putting migrants to work, the US government is working to keep them out. We have stepped up enforcement at the border and under the last administration launched deportation campaigns against undocumented migrants.
In addition, in 2020, the number of immigrant and non-immigrant visas issued was down 54% from the previous year. In turn, visas for temporary and permanent workers fell by 44%. And as surprising as it may seem, more Mexicans are going home today that come to the United States
I believe the solution to our job crisis is literally knocking on our door in the south. In 2019, at the height of the Central American migrant caravans, I made several trips across the border to Tijuana to interview migrants. Most of the people I spoke to resided at the Casa del Migrante, which has housed migrants for more than three decades.
I have met hundreds of volunteer workers in the hopes of fulfilling the American dream of working hard and moving forward. One man, Carlos, summed up the chaos so many people were fleeing from. Originally from Honduras, Carlos was accompanied by his 3-year-old son.
“The gangs killed my brother and my sister. And they threatened my son and tortured me, ”Carlos said, revealing multiple scars on his chest. “I hope to get asylum and find enough work to buy a small house for my son,” Carlos said. “What more could we ask for?”
As our nation continues to age, the need for workers like Carlos, who has varied work experience, and others like him, becomes increasingly evident. Through a guest worker program, migrants like Carlos could help meet our country’s demand for additional workers. They would also increase Social Security assets and renew the United States’ commitment to providing refugees with safe refuge. The workers are close, waiting to prove themselves.
The question is whether or not we are ready to open the door.
Ben Waddell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to sparking a lively conversation about the West. He is Associate Professor of Sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.