Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, flanked on both sides by North Liberty business owners, addressed workforce and immigration reform concerns during a small business roundtable at Jewelry by Harold on June 27.
In addition to hearing from local business owners, Rep. Miller-Meeks listened to stories from two documented Dreamers and received an infrastructure update from Mayor Chris Hoffman and other city officials.
Miller-Meeks on immigration reform
Rep. Miller-Meeks said Monday she is “encouraged” and “remains hopeful” about her efforts to get legislation passed about documented Dreamers in the upcoming months, but notes it will be difficult to do “anything large on immigration, given what’s happening at the southern border.”
She cited a New York Times report of 1.7 million people coming across the border illegally, saying that helping subsets of the immigrant population is more challenging due to the scope and size of reining in the broader issue.
“That colors everything else that happens on immigration,” she said. “But we’re talking about a specific subset of legal immigration which no one has looked at in the past. For lack of a better word, they age out of the system, meaning they can no longer be dependent upon their parents. We have individuals who have been educated here and want to stay here, but they have to leave because the immigration system doesn’t allow them to stay.”
A documented Dreamer is a child who enters the United States with a guardian under a temporary visa but does not yet have permanent residence. If permanent residency is not attained, the child can lose temporary dependent status and be removed from the green card queue, according to the Anti-Defamation League. However, obtaining that status can prove very challenging.
Harold van Beek, owner of Jewelry by Harold, said his son is directly impacted by these immigration discussions.
“A lottery is actually determining whether you stay or not,” he said. “In the meantime, he needs to leave the country. He cannot work in the United States. We’re talking about 10,000 children a year with intellectual property. We’re destroying intellectual property and money by this stupid law.”
Mr. van Beek’s son, Laurens van Beek, said his current status expires July 10. By Sept. 8, he falls under the status of undocumented immigrant.
“I don’t know exactly how it would happen, but eventually ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or someone would come to my house…and they’ll find a way to send me back to the Netherlands,” Laurens said.
Staying too long after an expiration date can result in being banned from the United States for up to 10 years in some instances, said Kartik Sivakumar, a University of Iowa student and documented Dreamer.
“[My son’s] flight leaves next Tuesday and we don’t know when we will see him back,” said Harold.
Consistent with the national trend, small business owners are still having trouble finding and retaining workers.
“Our workforce is probably 50% transient in this area because of the university students, so we are constantly training people,” said Brian Tharpe, owner of We Run shoe store in North Liberty. “We have a high turnover rate. We’ve given out as many raises as we humanly can.”
“These high school kids apply for a job and want 16 to 20 bucks an hour,” he added. “They’ve never even had a job before, they can’t show up to work on time, but they think they’re worth 20 bucks an hour.”
While Iowa’s unemployment dropped to 2.7% in May, Rep. Miller-Meeks noted that there are still more than 10 million people out of the workforce.
“We’re not back where we were, prior to the pandemic,” she said.
But even though Mr. Tharpe believes some wage expectations are unrealistic, he understands why the motivation to reenter the workforce can be low with gas prices and the cost of essential services like daycare being high, and with his store being unable to offer remote work due to the nature of his business.
“We’re now to the point where there’s just no more money to give because we get slow in the wintertime,” he explained.
While finding long-term employees to work at a salary both parties can agree on is among the top recurring issues, his business is not spared by supply chain woes at a national level. Rep. Miller-Meeks said she is working on legislation to loosen rules regarding commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) that should play a small role in helping the supply chain troubles.
“The Department of Labor and Transportation prohibits someone under age 21 going 500 miles across state lines,” she explained. “So, if they can go 500 miles, why does it matter if you’re going from the Mississippi to the Missouri? Or if you’re starting in Iowa City, why can’t you go across the Mississippi River into Illinois but still be limited to 500 miles?
She said she is also working to change the definition of independent contractors and franchisees, as that can make a big impact for small business owners.