Immigration as a Colorado workforce solution


The 10-year budget and economic forecast released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on February 7, “estimates the labor force will be larger by 1.7 million potential workers in 2024 and 5.2 million more in 2033 then the CBO expected one year ago,” because of net immigration to the U.S., according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Post reported that an accompanying note to the 10-year forecast from the director of the CBO said that, because of the immigration-driven increase in the labor force, GDP from 2023 to 2034 will be greater by about $7 trillion and revenues (i.e., taxes paid to the federal government) will be greater by about $1 trillion than they would have been otherwise.

From left to right, Robert Barnes, Senior Consultant Strategic Workforce Planning, Xcel Energy, Brock Herzberg, Principal Capitol Focus, Kit Taintor, Vice President, Welcome.US, Alexandre Padilla, Professor of Economics, MSU Denver, Dee Daniels Scriven, Director, Office of New Americans, Debbie Brown, President, Colorado Business Roundtable
Photo Courtesy of Colorado Business Roundtable

Colorado Business Roundtable (CBR), an affiliate of the National Business Roundtable based in Washington, D.C., recently hosted a speakers panel on, “Immigration as a Colorado Workforce Solution,” at the campus of Metro State University Denver (MSU). 

Panelists from MSU, Xcel Energy, Capital Focus, LLC, the Office of New Americans (ONA), and Welcome.US talked about the need to modernize the U.S. immigration system to ease local workforce challenges while helping immigrants assimilate. CBR President Debbie Brown served as moderator.

In her welcome address, President Brown noted that Dr. Janine Davidson, MSU president, is a member of the CBR board of directors, adding that the collaboration of academia, business, community, and government is the “secret sauce” that empowers CBR to formulate ideas and solutions to problems.

She also shared that she recently attended an event that featured former U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a strong fiscal conservative, who pointed to modernization of our immigration system as a key to increased economic success in the U.S.

Dee Daniels Scriven, Director of ONA, shared that, as of 2021, 9.6% of Coloradans were immigrants and 33% of all immigrants to our state held at least a bachelor’s degree. She also pointed out that Colorado immigrants contribute $5.9 billion in taxes annually, of which $1.9 billion is state and local, and that the top five countries from which Colorado’s immigrants hail are Mexico, India, Korea, El Salvador, and China.

ONA, Daniels Scriven explained, was established by the state legislature in 2021 and has launched the Global Talent Task Force to identify in-demand occupations and eliminate barriers to those occupations for internationally-trained professionals, including doctors. They are committed to finding jobs for immigrants that utilize the skills and talents they have brought with them to this country, focusing, in large part, on those who are able to obtain work permits, including refugees from Venezuela. She pointed to a $500,000 private donation ONA recently received that they believe will help get 2,000 people into jobs. 

Daniels Scriven also talked about the National Governors Association (NGA), of which Gov. Polis is currently vice-chair. NGA has formed a committee on immigration, comprised of 12 governors, split evenly between the two major political parties, who are working to develop principles focused on immigration reform to promote workforce participation. 

She completed her presentation with, “Immigrant integration is critical to our national economy and to Colorado’s economic success.” The impact on our state, she explained, comes from Colorado being the fourth fastest aging state in the country, so an increasing part of our population will be over 65, and the forecast shows a decline in the number of people under the age of 18, thus, “Without net immigration through 2030, we project to have deficits in the 0 to 44 age group and we already have two job openings for every unemployed person.” 

The 2024-2034 forecast from the CBO contains the same analysis and conclusion for the country writ large—that we are living longer, making the number of working-age adults in the U.S. an increasingly smaller complement of the total population, while the number of retired folks gets bigger and bigger.

Brock Herzberg, principal owner of Capitol Focus LLC, who has worked on the issue of immigration for over a decade, defined the problem as, “We’re operating under an old system in a modern world in which other countries…are seeing that immigration is a key solution to continuing to modernize and innovate, while we are not keeping up with the demands and needs of this country and the global environment,” adding that businesses he hears from are frustrated that, “The U.S. is 50 years past when it should have modernized its immigration system.”

Kit Taintor, Vice President, Welcome.US, agreed that our 50-year-old immigration system “is not agile enough to respond to the demands.” 

She went on, “There is a public narrative that, ‘People just need to come the right way,’ but there is no right way for people who are seeking safety and refuge in the United States. There is no line to get in. That sort of noise and rhetoric in our system is very harmful.” 

Taintor continued, “We have an asylum system that is trying to meet the needs of all newcomers to our nation when it’s not set up to do that.” As a result, she said, “What we’re seeing here at the local level is migrants coming without work authorization, without support systems, without infrastructure that we need to harness the skill sets of newcomers,” adding, “There has been some innovation under the Biden administration (including) an app at the border called CBP One…If you make an appointment and you come through that process, you are granted humanitarian parole and that allows you access to work authorization. It’s a diverse and complex system. We need wholesale solutions to drive the sort of change that our economy needs.” 

Alexandre Padilla, chair of the MSU Department of Economics, pointed out, “The system is not designed to attract workers. The system has been designed to make it very difficult for business to hire workers to help make their businesses more profitable and better serve consumers. It’s politics. Most voters are not well informed (about) what the research shows. Politicians…exploit people’s beliefs, biases, and stereotypes about foreign workers. That leads to the system we have that penalizes businesses, hurts innovation and (especially) talented women in many sectors.”  

Robert Barnes, senior consultant in workforce planning at Xcel Energy, reminded the attendees that Xcel “has made a commitment to be 80% carbon-free by 2030 and 100% carbon-free by 2050,” and, “With that comes some substantial challenges as far as our workforce goes…We need a sustainable talent pipeline (for) power plants located in rural areas that are sometimes difficult to hire in and are highly populated by migrants. A modern immigration system would absolutely help immigrants looking for work…Most of our workers in these highly skilled jobs make an incredible living and all the skill development happens on the job.”

Debbie Brown responded, “When we think about solutions, we think about federal and statewide immigration policies that are modernized, market-based, predictable, and sustainable,” noting that the biggest problem is obtaining authorization to work for immigrants while they are waiting for their legal status to be sorted out. Coincidentally, that was the message in the headline on page one of last Sunday’s Denver Post, as well.

Herzberg added that, “A lot of innovation is happening at the state level because of the inaction at the federal level…We need to work on visa reform; the asylum process is abhorrent—it takes four to four-and-a-half years to go through that process.”

 He pointed to the ability of immigrants, regardless of status, to get a Colorado driver’s license that went into effect a decade ago as an example of a positive step toward getting migrants into the workforce, especially in rural areas.

Kit Taintor noted that although Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Humanitarian Parole (HP) are tools that provide some migrants an opportunity to get access to work authorization, neither status leads to a path for citizenship because our immigration system is so antiquated.

Professor Padilla pointed to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as having the most up-to-date, successful immigration systems. He noted that, even with an H-1B Visa, which allows the most highly skilled foreign workers who have specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience to work in this country, it is very difficult to get permanent residency status. Canada, he shared, recently announced that anyone in the U.S. with an H-1B Visa is welcome to emigrate to Canada, where they will be awarded permanent residency status.