COMMENTARY: Our state capitol was founded in 1610, 10 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock and 165 years before the start of the Revolutionary War. If there was ever a great city and state founded by immigrants, let it be Santa Fe and New Mexico.
Today, in 2017, the immigrant population in New Mexico is the driving force behind the agriculture sector and other industries in our state, but our current immigration system is hampering our ability to fill critical roles in the workforce and grow the economy. As I’ve said before, immigration reform is not just a political imperative – it’s also an economic one that requires empowering our immigrants so they can fully enter the workforce and expand their own American Dream.
As an immigration attorney and founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, I am joining New American Economy (NAE) and calling on business leaders, students, entrepreneurs, and interested citizens who are personally affected by our broken immigration system to contact their member of Congress and demand reform. The economic impact of immigrants is a strong argument. NAE has also released state-specific research highlighting the economic impact of immigrants on the economy. Let’s look at what immigrants are up to in New Mexico.
Foreign-born New Mexicans from Congressional District 1 held $1.4 billion in spending power in 2014, and they paid nearly $400 million in taxes. That money was reinvested into our community, spent on roads and schools. But immigrants don’t just pay taxes — they are a vital part of one of our most important industries.
In 2014, the agriculture industry contributed $1.6 billion to the state’s economy and employed more than 15,700 New Mexicans. Although New Mexico produces a healthy amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, the state is primarily known for its dairy, another segment of agriculture that is increasingly reliant on foreign-born workers. In fact, according to a 2015 study, 51 percent of the laborers in the dairy industry nationwide were foreign-born residents. In these industries and more across the state, foreign-born workers fill the gaps where domestic-born workers will not work.
Given all this, however, the situation for businesses in New Mexico’s agriculture sector is more tenuous than it seems. The current, outdated visa system for agriculture creates major problems for states like New Mexico. Many farmers complain that the system is slow and that delays in processing visa requests often results in crop loss. Looking at dairies, in particular, roughly 70 percent of the establishments that hired immigrant workers reported concerns about the authenticity of their workers’ documents.
This leaves the dairies vulnerable to immigration raids and uncertainty surrounding their ability to find sufficient workers in the future. These lost crops and potential lost workers are a detriment to the success of our agriculture.
The result is a major labor shortage in the state’s agriculture industry. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers in New Mexico and Arizona dropped by 14 percent. As a result, real wages jumped by more than 20 percent during the same period. These cost increases are often passed directly onto consumers, creating a real problem for low-income families trying to make ends meet.
It’s clear that our current immigration system isn’t working. As residents of a border state, we know building a wall is not the answer. We need a solution that allows employers access to foreign-born workers to address labor shortages in key industries in a timely manner. This will help bring down product costs for all New Mexicans.
Just as the Santa Fe Dreamers Project represents every immigrant who seeks our help, Congress must represent every immigrant who lives in New Mexico. We need to encourage our members of Congress to make it easier — not harder — for immigrants to come out of the shadows to work hard and achieve their American Dream.
I strongly encourage you to visit reasonforreform.org to learn more about ways to encourage our federal leaders to act and to lend your voice to the campaign.
Allegra Love is an attorney and director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.