SOCORRO, Texas (Border Report) – Border business leaders are pressing their case for immigration reform, saying immigrant workers are the answer to America’s labor shortage and necessary replacements for an aging workforce.

The group assembled by the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at a Workforce and Border Security Solutions Roundtable Thursday in Socorro, also challenged federal lawmakers, particularly Republicans to participate in bipartisan discussions to modernize U.S. immigration laws this year.

“Our economy is going to take years to recover the loss of workers that has occurred from an aging population, the (COVID-19) pandemic, and the lack of immigration reform. We cannot wait any longer for immigration reform to occur,” said Andrea Hutchins, CEO of the El Paso Chamber.

Brookings Institution research using May 2022 data says the construction industry had a shortage of 50,000 workers, the retail industry had 1.1 million job openings and food service and hotel businesses had a shortage of 835,000 workers. In an article published last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said food service and hospitality businesses are still struggling to retain employees.

“We work with over 200 chambers throughout the state of Texas. We are all united on the need to get sensible immigration reform through,” said Glenn Hamer, CEO of the Austin-based Texas Association of Business. “There is a formula where we can provide greater border security while bringing in all those individuals that want to work and contribute to our great state.”

He was referring to options such as The Dignity Act of 2023, a bipartisan bill introduced last week by U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Florida, and Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. It expands legal migration pathways for millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country in exchange for the gradual but universal implementation of E-Verify. That’s an electronic system that already forces government contractors and local governments to verify the immigration status and work eligibility of employees.

“Throughout COVID immigrants chose to stay here and become one of our nation’s most important and valuable employees in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “This is not something that we will resolve today or tomorrow, but it’s something that community leaders in our region continue to gather at the table to discuss how we can best ensure the safety and well-being of those who seek help and those who call the United States home.”

The immigration reform debate is back on the radar following a sudden sharp drop in the irregular migration that dominated news cycles in the days prior to the end of Title 42 expulsions. Migrant apprehensions are down 50% since Title 8 processing replaced Title 42 on May 12, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Title 8 includes a five-year ban on migrants ineligible for asylum and possible jail time for repeat unauthorized crossers.

Borderplex Alliance CEO Jon Barela said this is the time to change the national perception of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The border, unfortunately, is viewed as a liability in many parts of the country, especially in Washington (D.C.) and some state capitols,” Barela said. “It’s imperative that we talk about our border as being a model for economic development, for being a model of how we treat migrants.”

Barela said a guest worker visa program should be part of the immigration debate to address migrants who want to work in the United States but not necessarily stay. That includes Mexican nationals routinely apprehended in the El Paso, Texas area trying to evade capture so they can work in the U.S. for a time, then go home to their families with money to improve their homes and living conditions.

He also called for a continued evaluation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to address labor migration and expand economic opportunities in all three countries.