Recent data from the state Department of Workforce Services says Utah’s unemployment rate continues to be well below the national average, at 2.8%, compared to 3.7%. In Utah County specifically, that rate drops to 2.6%.
It sounds like good news, but there’s a darker side to a low unemployment rate: labor shortage.
It’s this kind of shortage that leads employers to bring foreign and migrant workers to Utah and Utah County to fill in gaps with skilled workers. Chad Graham, co-founder of immigration law firm Graham Adair, estimates most of the foreign workers coming to Utah are coming from India, followed by China, with Canada and Mexico tied for third place.
Graham Adair specifically focuses on immigration law when it comes to business, helping clients navigate and file government-required paperwork to bring employees to the state on work visas, typically H-1B. H-1B visas allow employers to temporarily employ foreign workers with highly specialized knowledge, with a bachelor’s degree or higher or its equivalent in their specialty.
If a company wants to keep an employee, Graham Adair then helps them through the green card process.
“Depending on where the person’s from, (it) can take from two to 12 years to get,” Graham said. “Essentially, what we have to demonstrate is that the employee is not displacing U.S. workers ... as long as we can demonstrate that, then they can get their green card.”
In the past, Graham said, H-1B visas have never been much of a “hot button” issue, but with the current White House administration, it’s become one — tripling rates of visa denials in the last few years.
“More than half the cases filed are getting these sometimes very significant challenges,” Graham said.
Outside of paperwork, Graham said he thinks people typically want to embrace diversity, but when it comes to losing one’s job or seeing the economy take a turn for the worse, people may turn to incorrect notions about migrant and foreign workers.
“You hear that people say things, like (companies) ... are importing cheap labor to take our jobs, which is really not what’s happening,” he said. “But it’s a perception.”
Bringing workers over legally also requires employers to prove they’re paying a certain salary threshold, the same as what other laborers who are local to the area would receive for the same job.
“I’m not saying that the H-1B visa program can’t be abused,” Graham said, “But most companies ... they’re doing this the right way.”
For farmers in Utah County, without the opportunity to hire migrant agricultural workers through the H-2A visa program, many of their farms would go under. The H-2A visa is specifically for temporary agricultural workers. In order to have visa applications for migrant agricultural workers approved, farmers have to first advertise their job openings in four states.
“In the last five years, I’ve probably had two (local) people apply for work ... There just isn’t the workforce,” said Jake Harward, owner of Harward Farms. “The argument that we’re taking jobs from people, I don’t feel like (is) a valid argument because we try and hire locally.”
Similar to the H-1B visa program, Harward and other farmers have to prove what they’re paying workers to get them approved. Harward pays his workers well above minimum wage, and said the workers he hires are skilled at what they do.
“It’s not like we’re bring these guys here for cheap labor,” Harward said. “(Some of) these guys worked for me 10-plus years. They know the routine ... they’re skilled laborers.”
As part of the program, farmers also have to provide housing for the laborers they hire, who work and live in Utah County for the better part of the year; for Harward Farms, it’s roughly the middle of April to the end of November. Lodgings are inspected by the state, Harward said; they also have to pay for their transportation to the states, but not for their return to their home countries.
Celso Placencia has worked for Harward the past 13 years, leaving his family in Nayarit, Mexico, to work and send money back. He has four children, the youngest of whom is 11 years old. Placencia said he loves working in the fields, and although none of his children so far have followed in his footsteps, he’s very proud of them — the two oldest are a teacher and a civil engineer, respectively, while the two youngest are still in school.
Placencia said he hasn’t dealt with any problems having to do with racism or felt affected by the immigration politics, although he has a lot of sympathy for people who come across the border “without permission,” or without work visas.
“People suffer a lot to get here,” Placencia said in an interview translated from Spanish. “It’s very difficult, and once they get here, there’s no jobs.”
Of course, it’s also difficult to leave one’s wife, children and parents behind for more than half the year to work, he added. But he’s grateful to have the work.
“Things are good because we come here to work hard and send money back to Mexico,” Placencia said.
Outside the H-2A or H-1B bubble, however, according to the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, both immigrants with documentation and without are suffering the consequences of negative attitudes towards immigration.
Alex Guzman, president of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said immigrants bring goods and help to local and state economies, because the vast majority of them come with the intent to provide for their families. But with a crackdown on immigration policy, and deportations in particular, Guzman said it fills immigrants with fear, even causing them to give up full-time work in favor of day-to-day labor.
“Every single day we hear on the news about deportation, about ICE officers looking for some specific people ... but of course when they are looking for someone, people who are at the wrong place at the wrong time are going to be captured and deported as well,” Guzman said. “So of course, rather than put themselves at risk, they hide themselves ... that is affecting jobs.”
As for the conditions at the border involving migrants being detained and parents being separated from their children, although it may be physically far away, Guzman said it affects the Latino community emotionally.
“I am pretty sure that every single one of the (Latino immigrant) population here, the ones that have the fortune and blessing to be here and have the job opportunity or the business opportunity, we feel sometimes a little bit guilty,” he said. “Every single one of us, the immigrants, we know someone who is related to someone who is there (at the border) right now ... at the end of the (day) it’s our own, very own people. Not just because we are Hispanic, but because we are all human.”
Even for Latinos who feel safe remaining in full-time work, Guzman said, the emotions surrounding what is happening at the border to fellow Latinos can harm work productivity, as well as home life.
“If my children are raised with some financial situations, with some immigration stress, of course that is being absorbed by the second generation,” he said. “That is contaminating their souls, their minds, their feelings, their vision, their enthusiasm, their energy.”
Guzman encourages Utahns to hire Latino workers as much as the law will allow them. Similarly, when it comes to H-1B visas, Graham said there’s a misconception that there aren’t enough visas to go around, when that’s simply not the case, he said. Both Guzman and Graham said employers just need to work to understand the systems that will allow them to hire foreign labor, like Harward and other Utah County farmers have done.
“They just want to come work,” Harward said.