Cornerstone of the economy

Business owners, local officials weigh in on proposed RAISE Act

Mark Minton
Angelica Castillo-Chappel talks about her life coming to Garden City from Mexico. [BRAD NADING/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER]

On Aug. 2, President Donald Trump endorsed an immigration bill put forth by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia that, as described by its progenitors, is intended to protect American workers from competition from “low-skilled” foreign workers by cutting the number of green cards issued by 41 percent in the first year and by 50 percent within 10 years, primarily by targeting family-based immigration.

The New York Times reported that the government issues more than 1 million green cards annually, with just 140,000 of those provided on the basis of job skills. Many of the rest are given to family members of existing citizens. This act, known as the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or the RAISE Act, would reverse that trend.

George J. Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, defended the new bill in an Aug. 4 Politico article.

“They propose two major shifts in existing policy,” Borjas wrote. “One tries to address the question of how many immigrants should come into the country. The other answers the question of which applicants we should let in — through a complete rewrite of the rules for skills-based immigration.”

Borjas argued that the bill should not be controversial, because, “If nothing else, the proposal introduces much-needed transparency in identifying which types of workers we seek.”

He noted that the bill would use a point system to address the 140,000 visas assigned on the basis of employment preferences similar to systems being used in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The system basically grades visa applicants on education, occupation and age while adding up the points to determine who qualifies.

Through that system, points are more generously awarded to those who are English-proficient, those with advanced degrees in science and technology, and those who have been awarded prizes for their abilities: 15 points for an Olympic medal, and 25 points to a recipient of the Nobel Prize.

“And I suspect that most Americans would view the Cotton-Perdue approach as common sense,” Borjas wrote. “Do many of us really believe that America would benefit more by letting in a sociology professor in her 50s than by letting in a young woman with an advanced degree in computer science?”

Many, however, argue the bill would be problematic for the agricultural industry and other industries with a focus on manual labor. Not only would the bill cap the number of refugees admitted annually, it would prioritize admissions to immigrants who speak English, have advanced degrees and work experience, while limiting family visa admissions to the spouses of citizens and children younger than 18. All other relatives would not qualify.

Citing a study from the Center for Economic Policy Research, the New York Times editorial board argued that immigration boosts productivity and economic growth, while limiting immigration accomplishes the reverse effect.

Economic officials in Garden City seem to agree.

Local success story

One Garden City resident believes her story shows that the implication that immigrants admitted into the country on the basis of family ties with few skills and little English proficiency are of a lesser value than others is misguided.

Angelica Castillo-Chappel is a member of the 2017 class of Leadership Kansas, a member of the St. Catherine Hospital board of directors, the Crime Stoppers Advisory Board for the Garden City Police Department, the advisory board for Black Hills Energy, the finance council for St. Mary Catholic Church, and has been the Community Mexican Fiesta president for the past 15 years, continuing a 91-year tradition in Garden City.

“It’s so neat to go around the state as a community leader of your own city and represent Kansas and bring people into Kansas and say, 'This is how wonderful Kansas is, and this is how big we are in Kansas and we want you to be a part of it,'” Castillo-Chappel said of the Leadership Kansas program. “It’s kind of neat to go out and say, ‘Hey, I’m from this town, and I was an immigrant and I didn’t know a word of English, but now I’m actually representing our city and I’m giving back to the city that has given us so much…”

As part of the program, Castillo-Chappel was allowed to tour a bean processing plant in Goodland. She said the majority of the workers in the plant were Hispanic.

Castillo-Chappel and her family were drawn to Garden City almost immediately by the employment opportunities at the Tyson plant in Holcomb, “because the only requirement to working there was to be in good physical condition,” she said.

She says she spoke no English when she entered the country from Mexico with her family in 1989 at the age of 13, under the auspices of the immigrant amnesty program initiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by Congress in 1986.

Now, she is a sales agent for Casco Homes Inc., a commercial and residential construction company owned by her husband, and a property manager for Labrador Apartments LLC.  She also spent time working at the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, where she was the first bilingual outreach contact who worked toward integrating Hispanic businesses into the local and statewide community.

But before any of that, she only knew that she wanted to be successful, and that she wanted to make her father, who dreamed of starting a business in the U.S., proud.

“We’ve all gone to school. We’re all successful,” she said of her two brothers and one sister. “It was really, really hard when we came here, not knowing anything.”

Castillo-Chappel said it only took her six months to get the hang of English, although she admits she’s still learning. After that, it didn’t take long for her to realize she had a dream of getting involved in finance, she said.

Now, the construction company she helps manage services projects throughout southwest Kansas, while the apartments she oversees house the employees who comprise the backbone of that construction work. She says most of the employees in her family’s construction business are Hispanic, and about 30 percent of those, if not less, have any semblance of an advanced degree and most speak only broken English.

“A high percentage of them are not fluent,” she said.

As for jobs, Castillo-Chappel said it is never easy to find people to do the work entailed in construction, but that because many in the Hispanic community know each other, especially new immigrants, they bring each other in to do the work through an extended network of family members and friendships.

“My husband has been lucky enough that he doesn’t have that much of a turnover, so it has been the same people for a long time,” she said. “They come and go. They come and go always, especially with that line of work.”

When asked what would become of Casco Homes Inc. without that employee demographic, Castillo-Chappel said there would be no business.

“Even in the rental, if that (RAISE) act comes into place, Tyson is not Tyson anymore,” she said, referring to the Tyson Fresh Meats plant near Holcomb, where many immigrant workers are employed. “Who is going to do the job? Who is going to rent from us? How are we going to keep our business afloat? We will all go into bankruptcy. There is no way to survive without those skills that we need, if you want to call them skills.”

Workers tough to come by

Brian Vulgamore of Vulgamore Family Farms in Scott County can attest to the need for more immigrant workers, especially those with green cards who would be allowed to stay on a more permanent basis.

Vulgamore said his farming operation primarily utilizes the H2A visa, a temporary work visa for foreign agricultural workers that allows for seasonal work in the United States.

Jeremy Beck, director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA, noted in an Aug. 4 article that the RAISE Act does not explicitly affect the H2A program, while arguing that most foreign agricultural workers are working through H2A visas or illegally.

He also wrote, “There is no mathematical evidence to support the claim that extended-family Chain Migration is propping up the agricultural industry.”

Vulgamore explained that the H2A visa program is highly regulated through paperwork and stipulations that require priority toward native-born workers. Still, he said, H2A workers average 70 to 75 hours of work a week for nine months with no vacations, and make anywhere from $35,000 to $40,000 in that time.

He added that a problem among native-born workers is that they become accustomed to the cultural endorsement of a 40-hour workweek.

“That right there is the reason why Americans don’t want that job is because it’s extremely hard for us to find Americans that are willing to work 70 hours a week with very little time off. It’s not a great family life,” Vulgamore said.

The H2A program, Vulgamore said, requires him to pay U.S. citizens more than H2A workers. He is also required to inspect H2A housing and is subject to federal audits. While the bulk of Vulgamore’s foreign-born employees are white South Africans with agricultural backgrounds who speak “good English,” he said he continues to rely on the H2A program because there are “not many Americans that are willing” to do the work required at a farm.

“Most of our guys, at least 50 if not 70 percent of them, come back for at least a second year,” Vulgamore said. “Some of them are going on four or five years. Numerous ones have told me they would love to make the United States home. They would love to bring over their girlfriends or their wives and make a home in western Kansas and raise their families in western Kansas, but the current immigration system won’t allow it.

“Ultimately, that’s what we need. We need to find people, and I don’t care where they come from, that are willing to make a home and raise kids and have families in western Kansas, that love agriculture.”

Vulgamore said 50 percent of his employee base is foreign-born, and that among those are people with varied educational backgrounds, ranging from one with a PhD who works on an administrative level, all the way down to an eighth-grade education in the case of German Mennonites from Mexico and Canada. He said only one of his foreign-born workers has a bachelor’s degree, while one or two have the equivalent of an associate’s degree in agriculture.

He added that while he prioritizes hiring workers with adequate English proficiency and some technological expertise, languages spoken on his farm include English, Spanish, German, French and Afrikaans.

“We would be so much better off if we could let these H2A visas allow them to extend their stays,” Vulgamore said.

Workers needed

Steve Dyer, president of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, said Garden City is in need of a larger workforce.

“We’re in dire need of employees, and Garden City has a history of migrant workers, going back to the sugar beet fields and the railroads,” he said. “Part of our employment has always come from that, and it hasn’t changed today. We don’t have enough bodies to do the work that is needed, so (the RAISE Act) will have a large impact on what we do out here.”

According to the Kansas Department of Labor, 716 of the 22,661 members of the Garden City micro area, including Finney and Kearney counties, are unemployed. The total unemployment rate is 3.2 percent as of June, up from 2.9 percent in May and down from 3.6 percent in June 2016.

Finney County Economic Development Corp. President Lona DuVall said that as of June 20, Garden City had 1,000 jobs advertised with less than 600 local residents unemployed.

“Even if we took every single unemployed person and put them in a job, we still wouldn’t meet the demands of our employers right now, and it’s been that way for generations,” she said. “That gap continues to grow as we see the economic growth that we’re having. So in order for us to continue to grow our economy and make this county a better place to live and make it more valuable for folks who live here, the only way we can do that is to grow the population at something similar to the rate of economic growth, which requires that we recruit folks to the community.”

DuVall has been in talks with State Sen. John Doll, as well as Congressman Roger Marshall, as she endeavors to get the message to Topeka and Washington that western Kansas needs more people to do more jobs in sectors that aren’t exclusive to an expertise in science and technology.

She said agricultural producers are of a consensus that the immigrant workforce brings special skills relevant to agricultural production.

“These are truly skilled workers, and unfortunately, a lot of times the mantra at the federal level is, ‘We’ll leave immigration for high-skilled workers,’ and they consider agriculture and construction to be low-skill fields, and that’s just absolutely not the case,” DuVall said.

The skills aren’t specific to any particular region of the world, DuVall said. It is for that reason, she said, that immigration reform is necessary, but she emphasized that the reform must curtail the difficulty with which immigrants are legally admitted into the country. Instead, she said, the United States needs a streamlined immigration process that gives families who are willing to work and follow the law the opportunity to build lives here.

One aspect of localized immigration reform that DuVall deems necessary is a shift in accessibility to services, so that local immigrants still moving through the citizenship process aren’t required to travel periodically to Wichita and Kansas City, the only two viable locations in the state that facilitate the journey to full citizenship. She said those trips result frequently in missed workdays and lost economic productivity.

“The immigrants are in the western half of the state,” DuVall said. “We need to get services out here so that they’re available to them, but we absolutely want the focus on immigration. We want them to recognize that what we deal with is so different than what other parts of the country might be dealing with… So we want reform, too. We just want it to be the right kind of reform.”

Immigration's the answer

Doll, R-Garden City, is especially passionate about immigration reform. For him, the problem is that southwest Kansas lacks the workers it needs, and he sees immigration as the only solution.

“If the immigration policy is strictly enforced or put in like they want with the RAISE Act, we are going to have a very, very, very difficult time to do our jobs, to keep our industry, because feed yards, they’re 50 percent Hispanic… Your meatpacking plant, all of them require a lot of manual labor,” he said. “I don’t know if this bill is good for New York. I’m not worried about New York or California or wherever. I just know this bill is a bad, bad bill for the ag industry.”

Doll said he doesn’t think it would take long for Garden City to start seeing an impact if visas and green cards were drastically cut. He said he has spoken with managers at dairies, feed yards and meatpacking plants, “and they’re all concerned.”

Noting a “brain drain” phenomenon ailing the area, Doll said a problem in places like southwest Kansas is that, “Our kids aren’t coming home.” He said that even his two children live in the Kansas City area.

“Kids aren’t coming back, and it’s something that has to be addressed,” he said. “We need to bring industry. We need to diversify. But ag will always be the foundation of western Kansas, always… What we need is manual labor. That’s the type of people that we need.”

But as Castillo-Chappel said, the people who can do those jobs and who are willing to do those jobs are being barred from entering the country or scared away through legislative propositions such as the RAISE Act.

“We bring each other. We didn’t come to the United States not knowing anybody,” she said. “We came knowing somebody and the word spreads. That’s how it works. That’s how the chain works. We all bring each other in.”

And what if the chain gets broken?

“I think we will all be broken,” Castillo-Chappel said.

Correction: A previous version of this article used the wrong acronym to identify the RAISE Act in a parenthetical.