Letter: The state of Iowa needs responsible, pro-growth immigration reform

Iowa knows better than perhaps any other state in the union the tendency of politicians to talk about one of the most pressing issues — immigration — just once every four years. Then the issue fades away, with little meaningful action taken, until the next election. In the meantime, our outdated immigration system hampers our nation’s economic opportunity, preventing Iowa businesses from reaching their full potential.

To draw attention to the economic benefits immigrants provide, the Ames Chamber of Commerce is joining the New American Economy (NAE) and thousands of business and community leaders across the country. Armed with critical data to support our cause, we are making a case for common-sense immigration reform.

Iowa is home to more than 150,000 immigrants, a population more than twice the size of the city of Ames. In our congressional district alone, immigrants paid $205.4 million in state and local taxes in 2014. Of that, over $135.1 million went to mandatory spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Statewide, immigrants have $3 billion in spending power. These financial resources are reinvested into our communities, our small businesses, our schools and our public infrastructure. Additional revenue is not the only reason immigration reform is necessary and right for Iowa.

The single biggest issue for our employers is workforce availability and finding a steady, reliable source of employees to fill the growing need for qualified labor across all sectors of Iowa’s economy. This is especially true in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In 2014 alone, 32,697 STEM jobs were advertised online in Iowa. At that time, there were only 628 unemployed STEM workers to fill the positions. This translates to a staggering 52-to-1 employment gap.

At that time, students on temporary visas made up roughly one out of every four students earning a STEM master’s degree at an Iowa university, and 48.6 percent of students earning a Ph.D.-level degree in STEM. The bad news? Even after receiving their degree, many of these promising students struggle or are unable to remain in the country after graduation. In 2014, Iowa State University had 4,802 foreign-born students, 58.2 percent of whom were enrolled in a STEM field. Unfortunately, due largely to outdated immigration policies, only 28.9 percent of these highly-skilled students were able to stay in Ames and Story County upon graduation.

Our antiquated immigration system makes it difficult for STEM employers to sponsor the high-skilled workers they need to fill key positions. This is problematic as it slows business growth and expansion, and limits the employment opportunities firms can provide for foreign and U.S.-born workers alike.

What is especially troubling is that STEM fields continue to expand at a record pace and are helping the economy grow by continually adding promising job opportunities to the market. NAE estimates that there will be 800,000 new STEM jobs created nationwide by 2024. These are lucrative careers in innovative fields, and attracting an educated workforce to fill these positions will allow us to capitalize on this growth and seize this opportunity.

If Iowa truly wants to reach its economic potential, we must be able to recruit, and more importantly, retain the workforce our local employers need. We must stop allowing bright, highly trained individuals, educated at American institutions of higher education, to go out into the world and compete against us, rather than working with us.

The longer we allow our current immigration system to remain unchanged, the easier we make it for competing nations to attain the highly-skilled and talented individuals we are denying. That is why the Ames Chamber of Commerce stands with the New American Economy in strongly encouraging our elected officials to implement a responsible, pro-growth immigration reform that will allow us to retain the best and brightest and give our employers the help they need.