DES MOINES — Some Iowa industries — manufacturing in particular — could lose workers if federal protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children are removed, state business leaders say.
President Donald Trump announced recently he will end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program implemented under former President Barack Obama.
Under DACA, federal law enforcement officials do not pursue for deportation immigrants living in the U.S. who were brought here while they were children.
Should DACA be rescinded, federal law enforcement personnel could begin deporting those immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since they were an average of 6 years old, according to a recent national survey conducted by pro-immigration groups.
That could have an impact on Iowa’s workforce, state business leaders say.
The state’s manufacturing stands to be most affected, according to U.S. Census data.
More than 1 of every 10 Iowa workers in manufacturing are foreign born, and of those workers, more than 3 of 5 are not legal U.S. residents, according to census data compiled by Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson.
“If you talk to any manufacturer in the state, I can’t believe they won’t all say the same thing, and that’s that we need more people,” said Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. “Folks hear the word immigration or changes in immigration policy, and the concern is it will make it harder for people to come to the U.S. or Iowa, and that is a concern for manufacturers in Iowa.”
DACA-eligible immigrants, however, are only a portion of Iowa’s immigrant workforce.
Immigrants are eligible for DACA protections if they were born after June 15, 1981. That date caps eligibility at 36 years of age. They also must have been brought to the U.S. before they were 16 years old and have continually lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007.
Roughly 2,400 DACA grantees currently work in Iowa, according to an expert’s estimate based on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
The estimate was cited in a lawsuit brought by 15 state attorneys general, including Iowa’s, against the Trump administration over the DACA repeal.
“There’s not that many DACA (recipients) in Iowa,” Swenson said. “It’s not a very big number. They, in and of themselves, are not a big fraction of Iowa’s workers in terms of foreign born.”
Iowa business leaders, however, said any changes to federal immigration policy that could lead to fewer workers will negatively affect the state’s workforce.
“The vast majority of (DACA grantees living in Iowa) are already working and contributing in our state’s key industries,” said Mary Bontrager, executive vice president of talent development for the Greater Des Moines Partnership.
Bontrager is responsible for recruiting and retaining talent to the Des Moines area for the Partnership, a collaboration of 6,000 central Iowa business organizations. She made the comments on a recent conference call hosted by New American Economy, a national coalition of local government and business leaders who support federal immigration reform.
“These young adults have been educated here, prepared themselves for the opportunities that are here in central Iowa, and we certainly cannot afford for them not to continue to be strong contributors to our economy here in central Iowa,” Bontrager said. “These are bright, hard-working young people who have worked hard to build for the American dream, and we certainly believe that that needs to happen here. So ending DACA and removing protections for these young adults would be a considerable loss for us here in central Iowa and across the state. They have become job creators, and they are filling critically needed positions in our workforce and are contributing to the state’s economy.”
Iowa’s agricultural industry also could feel an effect of DACA repeal or other federal policy changes that restrict immigration, although that impact might not be as widespread because the ag sectors most influenced by immigrant labor are a small part of the state’s agriculture footprint.
Dairy farms in particular have a high rate of immigrant workers: Nationally, more than half of dairy farm workers are immigrants, according to a 2014 study by Texas A&M University’s Center for North American Studies for the National Milk Producers Association.
In Iowa, however, dairy farms make up about 1,400 of the state’s farm operations out of nearly 90,000.
“Labor is always something that our dairy farmers struggle with. We are constantly going through a flux of employees,” said Mitch Schulte, associate director of the Iowa State Dairy Association. “Quite a few dairy farmers use immigrant labor, and it’s important that we continue to look into that issue to make sure that we do what’s best for not only the dairy farmers but all of ag in the U.S.”
The state dairy association’s official stance on immigration reform calls for policy that strengthens border security but also strengthens the economy with a “responsive and effective” guest worker system and keeps families together.
“Dairy farmers face a critical shortage of workers every year, as citizens are largely unwilling to engage in these rigorous activities and guest worker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace,” the dairy association’s official policy reads. “This situation makes our farms less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms is essential to agriculture and the U.S. economy.”
Swenson said that within agriculture, animal feeding operations also have a high rate of immigrant workers.
“If we did something drastic with regard to foreign-born people in the U.S., that industry would suffer immediately,” Swenson said.
Swenson and Schulte said immigrant workers are more prevalent in areas of agriculture that find it challenging to hire because of the nature of the work.
“The reason that stands out with the food processing is those are jobs that the average Iowan, for one reason or the other, just simply won’t do, at least not at the rate they’re being paid,” Swenson said. “They’re just hard, dirty, awful jobs. They’re not bad in terms of pay; they’re bad in terms of the work you have to do.”
Schulte said it's getting "harder and harder to find people that want to work on a dairy farm."
"In all of ag, working on a farm, period, is a tough job. It’s hard work. ... In today’s society, it’s getting harder and harder to find people who want to do those jobs," he said.