Work visas rarer; unskilled labor force dwindling

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the number of undocumented immigrants in the workforce decreased by more than half a million between 2007 and 2017.

Millions of undocumented immigrants are residing in the U.S., and most of them can be found working in a select few industries.

According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants make up 5 percent of the U.S. workforce, and 2 to 4 percent in Oklahoma. For years, nearly 50 percent of the country's farm workers were made up of people who lack legal immigration status. They are also found in service jobs, transportation, and construction.

Reports across the nation indicate a shortage in manual laborers for low-skill jobs. The trend is also apparently affecting Cherokee County. Many believe it is because legal citizens born in the U.S. are looking for higher-paying jobs that require college educations or some type of training.

Marvin Hammond, owner of Midwest Electrical Contracting LLC, said he does not hire anyone who is undocumented and hasn't hired anyone on work visas, but he added that finding workers at all has been difficult.

"It's not just in Oklahoma," he said. "I also work in Arkansas and Texas, and you can't find anybody anywhere. Everybody wants to get a check, but nobody wants to do anything. It's very rare that you'll find someone who actually wants to learn a trade."

Despite the political rhetoric, between 2007 and 2017, the total number of undocumented immigrants decreased by 14 percent, and unauthorized immigrants in the labor force decreased from 8.2 million to 7.6 million. Many of the undocumented arrive with legal visas, but then do not leave by the required dates. The decrease in the undocumented labor force could be a sign of more immigrants entering the country with legal visas or through other means, such as an international agreement between other countries and the U.S.

Hammond said many migrants in the region, especially in Arkansas, wind up working for poultry companies, but the demographics have changed over the years.

"Most of your migrant workers are working at Tyson [Foods]," he said. "The Hispanics are getting fewer and fewer working at Tyson, because they're bringing in people from the Marshall Islands."

Hammond could be correct in his analysis, as the Pew Research Center found that the number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants was lower in 2017 than any year since 2001. Also, according to a 2016 study by The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center on Arkansas poultry plants, poultry workers in Arkansas are 33 percent Latino, 17 percent African American, and 6 percent Asian, "with a large population of workers from the Marshall Islands."

As part of the Compact Agreement of Free Association, an international agreement between the U.S. and the three Pacific Island nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, people from the Marshall Islands may travel and work in the U.S. without having visas.

Agricultural businesses make up the largest segment of jobs for migrants who have proper immigration status to be in the U.S., as well as those who are undocumented. Many nurseries in the Cherokee County area, however, do not currently outsource their labor, so they are unaffected by trends in both documented and undocumented immigrants.

Sunshine Nursery, Grand View Nursery, and Sugar Tree Nursery all said they do not have employees on work visas, as their operations do not require excess labor. Greenleaf Nursery Human Resources Director Bobby Garcia said the company did not wish to comment.

With all eyes from Washington glued to the boarder crisis, local businesses say they feel the ramifications due to the attention down south.

A local business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said his workplace has been affected over the recent chaos on the boarder, and some employees just want to lay low.

"It's almost impossible to get Mexican workers now. They've become so scarce because they are getting scared and they are going back to Mexico; they don't want to get deported and lose their families," he said.

There are two types of temporary visas: a work one and a visitor one. A work visa gives the applicant permission to enter the country to work. The applicant must obtain a U.S. visa stamp in his or her passport from a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. The work visa allows a person into the country to legally work.

A visitor visa, also known as a tourist visa, takes longer to obtain, and gives the applicant permission to enter the country for pleasure, tourism, or medical treatment. Typically when people enter the country with visitor visas, they cannot stay for more than six months, and they cannot work or study. An extension of another six months can be requested.

"A lot of them will get a visitor visa just to visit, and they will stay here and work, but they can't legally work with it. That's the easiest way to cross the boarder nowadays," said the business owner. "My guys around here, they have to get a visitors visa, and in order to get one, you have to prove that your income in Mexico is high enough that you can come visit the U.S. and not have to look for a job. So it's almost impossible for someone to get a visitor visa in Mexico."

The business owner said it's becoming increasingly difficult to find people who have visitor visas, and that in order to obtain one, a person must prove to have economic stability.

"It's just so hard to do that when in Mexico," he said. "You're making 1,500 pesos a week, which comes out to like $100 a week - you can't prove that you're stable to come visit the U.S. and pay for all of your stuff. The way a lot of families do it is, they have like a family business, and one family member will have to take ownership of the family business. Then about three or four years down the road, they change the family member and he'll get the visiting visa."

He said there are people in Mexico who want to work in the U.S., and then there are those who are already here and who have become "lazy." He added that he would hire someone with a temporary visa over someone who is already here locally.

"They've gotten so used to the American lifestyle that they know they can outwork anybody, so then they tell me they want to get paid as much as the owner now," he said. "They didn't have the mindset of 'handouts' until they came here and they have became accustomed to it. There's the group who are 'no-call-no-shows' that come in still drunk from the night before, and then there's the group who want to come here and want to work, but can't."

Those who would like to become permanent residents through employment must apply for green cards, also known as permanent resident cards. These will authorize individuals to live and work in the country and are valid for 10 years.

What's next

The next part of this three-part series will focus on people who help the families of undocumented immigrants.