Aug 10, 2023 - News

Illinois farmers join calls for migrant work authorization

Photo of two people sitting on a stage talking to audience.

Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to Food Tank president Danielle Nierenberg at a food policy conference last week in Chicago. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Sen. Dick Durbin says some Illinois farmers are pleading with him to make it easier for migrants to work in the U.S.

Why it matters: As farms and other industries navigate the state's labor shortages, many are struggling to keep their operations running and are looking to the influx of migrants as a solution.

The big picture: Leaders in Illinois' hospitality industry have been urging the White House to expedite migrant work permits to help fill thousands of vacant hotels and restaurant jobs.

  • So far the Biden administration has not moved on the issue, and in the meantime, one Chicago alder and several community members charge that some migrants have turned to illicit activities to make money.

What they're saying: "Farmers tell me they can't continue their operations without immigrants coming in and reinforcing our workforce," Durbin told the audience at a food policy conference last week.

  • The senator says a fourth-generation dairy farmer in northwestern Illinois told him, "There will not be a fifth generation unless I have immigrant workers on this dairy farm. I have to milk those cows twice a day, and I can't find local people to help."

Zoom in: Many, including Durbin, think expediting work permits could also alleviate some of the strain migrants are having on Chicago's social services.

  • If they had faster permits, "maybe they wouldn't be sleeping in police stations," he told Axios at the conference. "They would probably be able to take home a real paycheck and cash it."

The intrigue: The loudest calls for Biden to speed up the permits is coming from Republican governors in Indiana and Utah.

  • "I have plenty of Republicans who agree with me that we need more workers in these industries and we need them now," Durbin says. "But there are members of the Senate who are duty-bound to make sure that not one more immigrant comes into this country."

Of note: Far-right rural Illinois Republicans U.S. Reps Mary Miller, Mike Bost and former U.S. Rep. Darren Bailey didn't respond to Axios' requests for comment.

  • The Republican-leaning Illinois Farm Bureau simply said its staff is "exploring the details of how, if allowed, states can expedite these types of actions."

Between the lines: Advocates are primarily pushing to let states sponsor workers in needed industries, while another plan envisions granting them temporary protected status.

What we're watching: Yet another option to employ new arrivals in state and local offices is being explored by the Board of Regents in the University of California, based on a legal theory that nothing in the federal labor law specifically outlaws it.

  • "It's a solid proposal based on traditional aspects of federalism, which is that if the federal government does not forbid states from doing something, they can legislate in the area," says Gzesh, who has sent documents about it to the Illinois Attorney General's Office to consider.

Meanwhile: Durbin says advocates for immigration changes "haven't given up," noting that "we still have a few other possibilities."


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