The shop floor at BMS Technologies, a billing services company on Pauite Drive in Bend, hums with the sound of high-speed printers run by workers overseen by production manager Javier Chong.
Chong, 55, a native of Ecuador, became a U.S. citizen in May 2016, 18 years after arriving in this country with his wife, two sons and ailing mother-in-law. He arrived with permission to work — he and his wife, Cecilia Carbo, still manage the Motel 6 in Redmond where they got their start — and a path to citizenship.
“In many ways, my story is different from most immigrants,” Chong said Wednesday.
Still, Chong, who worships at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Redmond, said he recognizes that many Hispanic members of his parish are living here and working illegally.
“There’s a struggle all the time,” he said. “They really want to participate socially, but they always feel shorted. They cannot have very public lives.”
Bringing immigrants out of the shadow is one solution to a looming labor shortage due to hit the U.S. in the next seven to 10 years, according to numbers provided by the Oregon Employment Department. Already facing a labor shortage in some sectors, employers east of the Cascades, from Hood River County to Klamath County, are expected to create more than 40,000 new jobs by 2024, more than half of them due to vacancies that will be the result of a retiring generation.
In the 10-county East Cascades region, 64 percent of job openings by 2024 will come from workers replacing older workers as they age out of the workforce, according to the Employment Department. All employment categories will need replacement workers in greater numbers than those that fill newly created jobs, according to the department. Service jobs, such as those in tourism and food service, are projected to experience the largest gap, with a need for about 8,000 replacement workers in addition to 5,000 newly created positions.
“We’re talking about a reality,” said Karla Castillo, East Cascades workforce analyst for the Employment Department. “We’re growing, and we’re getting older. The native population is not growing at the same pace while at the same time a population within our community is younger, willing to work and growing.”
In Deschutes County, foreign-born residents in 2015 numbered about 7,300 out of 157,400, or 4.6 percent of the total county population. Of those foreign-born residents, 60 percent, or 4,400, are not U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Immigrants, of whom Hispanics are the largest contingent in Oregon, make up 10 percent of the state population and 5.4 percent of the East Cascades region, according to the Employment Department. They comprise the majority of workers in some industries statewide, including manufacturing, tourism and work involving natural resources and mining.
“It’s not like the immigrant labor force will be the solution,” Castillo said, “but it will be part of any solution.”
To an economist, the idea seems straightforward. Economics is essentially a matter of choices, said Jon Wolf, professor of economics at Central Oregon Community College. Wolf is scheduled to take part in a City Club of Central Oregon panel discussion Thursday on The Role of Immigrants in Central Oregon.
“I don’t know that there are economists out there publishing anything that looks like immigration is bad. Because economists only look at choices, we don’t look at the decision making. We say, ‘If you do A, the outcome is from A; if you choose B, the outcome is from B.’ My job is to tell you as a congressman or a legislator or a business owner, ‘You have a set of choices, here are the consequences of those choices,’” he said recently. “I’m really hoping we can take this conversation at City Club down an interesting path of, if we have a labor need, does it really matter where the labor comes from?”
Another scheduled panelist, Wally Corwin, president at Jeld-Wen Door Replacement Systems Inc., former chairman of the Bend Economic Development Advisory Board and chairman of the East Cascades Workforce Investment Board, said immigrants may not be the obvious solution to the Central Oregon labor shortage.
A fourth-generation Oregonian, Corwin in August said the changing nature of work and the lack of skilled labor to fill openings is a more urgent problem.
“When we talk about a labor shortage, that’s not to say we have a labor shortage of people to fill available jobs,” he said. “What we have is a shortage of people with the skill sets to fill those jobs in the future.”
Soon, job requirements in Oregon will break along a 40-40-20 division, he said. Forty percent of future work will require a college education; 40 percent will require a technical education or skill sets beyond a high school education; 20 percent will fall to those with a high school education or less. Part of the solution to filling the coming labor gap is holding onto young people who take their newfound skills to another area, he said.
“I think the classic one we see today is we have an unemployment rate that’s the lowest since I can remember, yet businesses are constantly saying they do not have enough trained people to fill the positions they have,” Corwin said. “It’s not a lack of bodies. It’s a lack of people with the right skill sets.”
Publicly funded organizations like the workforce investment board receive state and federal funds that cannot go toward training illegal workers. While some business interests, such as farmers, urgently want reform in the immigration system, that policy is beyond local or regional control.
“I don’t think there’s anything that says 100 percent that we have a lack of population,” Corwin said. “I think, from an economic model, we have to listen to our employers, and some of those employers are definitely concerned about that skill set and the need to have those people in.”
Getting immigrants in — usually high profile professionals like artists and entertainers — and legally able to work is a specialty of Sisters attorney Brent Renison. Those cases are the exception, he said.
The problem with the U.S. immigration system for more ordinary people is a backlog of cases involving removals from the U.S. and low quotas for green cards. Many illegal immigrants, Renison said, actually have a path to permanent residency or citizenship.
“I’d say almost every single family has some kind of member with citizenship or permanent residency. That makes a person eligible for cancellation of removal,” Renison said. “That’s not something you can apply for. You have to only raise it as a defense for your removal.”
Illegal immigrants swept up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement may raise that defense and work in the U.S. until their status is finally adjudicated, which usually takes years. Being the spouse, child or parent of a citizen or permanent resident, having “good moral character” and a clean record and residing in the U.S. 10 years or more, in combination, are defenses to deportation, he said.
“You talk about raids and people getting locked up. Those people are going to be taken to a removal proceeding and raise a defense and actually get a work permit,” Renison said.
However, the immigration system is plagued by backlogs and a quota system that allow too few people and their families to legally enter the U.S., he said. The number of people allowed to legally immigrate for work reasons is 140,000, which includes the worker and family members. Those numbers are divided into different tiers from extraordinary ability down to ordinary professionals. For immigrants seeking to legally join other family members already in the U.S., the quota is 290,000 annually, Renison said.
“The figures are not representative of our country’s current economic needs, at all,” he said, “or our business needs for global talent or humanitarian needs for family reconciliation.”
Brad Porterfield, executive director of the Latino Community Association, in Bend, said the legal system of immigration is broken and does little to assist those with a legitimate case for legal residency. Reforming the system is both a humanitarian and an economic necessity, he said.
“We’re just advocating that we pull our head out of the sand, that we stop denying reality and we plan for the future,” Porterfield said, “because the future looks even grimmer if we continue down this path of denial.”
At BMS Technologies, more than half of the 14 workers on the shop floor are Hispanic, and some are immigrants, legally working in the U.S., said Sam Di Spaltro, who founded the company. Chong, the production manager, referred many of them to Di Spaltro to fill vacancies, whether in the shop or the front office, Di Spaltro said.
“Three are brothers and sister, two twins and a sister,” he said Thursday. “I don’t want to sound hokey, but we look for good people. We don’t care what flavor they are — short, fat, male, female, gay, straight — as long as they work and they’re good workers. You find good people when you ask good people.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7815, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Wally Corwin. The Bulletin regrets the error.