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Can Nevada's need for workers help change federal immigration law?

Hundreds of migrants gather along the border wall Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, in Lukeville, Ariz.
Ross D. Franklin
Hundreds of migrants gather along the border wall Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, in Lukeville, Ariz.

The U.S. is experiencing its longest stretch of 4% unemployment since the Vietnam War. The economy appears to be booming, and Americans are working.

And yet, Nevada needs more blue-collar workers.

"We're not finding the employees," said Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Peter Guzman.

"We're not finding people who want to do this work," he said.

According to estimates, the state will need as many as 100,000 new construction workers to keep up with demand in the coming years. Nevada's most significant economic driver, the hospitality industry, has reported trouble keeping staff. Restaurants, big and small, can't find enough people to fill openings.

One solution Guzman offers is to expand the federal government's work authorization programs to undocumented immigrants.

"That's why we decided to start having discussions about whether we need to improve and increase our work permit program," said Guzman. "Some of these immigrants who want to come here and work, why not allow them to?"

According to the Migration Policy Institute, nearly 170,000 undocumented immigrants live in Nevada. Most of them have lived here for a decade or more.

James O'Neill is the Political Director for the American Business Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group representing more than 1,200 businesses calling for immigration reform. His organization is pushing the Biden Administration to expand the federal government's well as Temporary Protected Status.

He told Nevada Public Radio's State of Nevada, that those undocumented residents could play a major role in filling out the labor market.

"With the President's existing legal authority, he could grant work authorization to those undocumented folks that are already here, not new arrivals at the border, but folks that are already here and have been living and contributing."

Critics of the policy say it offers amnesty to people who broke the law while entering the country. Others argue an influx of immigrant labor could stagnate wages or lead to greater exploitation of vulnerable workers.

O'Neill says expanding work authorizations would not create a pathway to citizenship. Instead, it would offer immigrants doing unsafe or low-paying jobs the chance to leave knowing they can find work elsewhere.

"You see employers and labor on the same side because it both enhances worker protections and cracks down on bad-actor employers," he explained. It solves a very real labor shortage that we're all experiencing and all feeling the effects of."

However, ahead of the 2024 general election, political leaders seem to be taking a very different approach to immigration.

In recent weeks, the Biden Administration and Congress have not been able to reach a deal on border security and immigration policy. At the same time, former President Donald Trump has claimed immigrants are 'poisoning the blood of our country.'

O'Neill says that rhetoric is concerning and needs to be toned down if there's any hope of reaching an agreement on immigration policy and that comments like that do a disservice to immigrants who are already working in the U.S.

"I would call attention to the fact that the six men who died in the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse were all immigrant laborers. So, they weren't "poisoning our blood" when they were there, maintaining our infrastructure, and heroically doing what they could at that moment to make that bridge safe."

The situation has become frustrating for Nevada's Hispanic leaders like the Latin Chamber's Peter Guzman.

"I'm not hearing enough when it comes to immigration, immigration reform, comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "That is really the conversations that I want to have, but I keep being told that it's a hard thing. So, [these] piecemeal type things happen, and we see total chaos at our borders now. I think we're paying a heavy price for that."

Guests: Peter Guzman, president, Latin Chamber of Commerce; James O'Neil, political director, American Business Immigration Coalition

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Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.