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South Dakota business leaders call on Congress to pass immigration reform

A panel of representatives, from construction to retail to dairy, said if South Dakota's federal delegation does not support immigration reform, they should produce alternative plans to those that have already passed the U.S. House.

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Rapid City, South Dakota, especially during summer months, hosts an economy driven by tourism. In mid-May 2021, state business leaders called on Congress to pass immigration reform in order to allow for an influx of new workers through legal immigration and statuses to help fill needed jobs. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

PIERRE, S.D. — A panel of business leaders in South Dakota called on Congress to solve the state's jobs crunch -- a cat's cradle of low unemployment with still tens of thousands of jobs to fill -- by passing bipartisan immigration reform and opening up the state to new workers ready to fill needed jobs from Wall Drug's donut counter to East River dairy farms to medical centers in Sioux Falls.

The immigration roundtable, hosted on Wednesday, May 19 by the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, brought together a former Republican state legislative leader, representatives of retailers and generals contractors, and even a DACA "dreamer," a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals , who teaches Spanish language courses at a Sioux Falls preschool.

"DACA really did help me get an opportunity to get a job that wasn't one of those under-the-table, hard-labor jobs that we know are out there for immigrants," said Karen Benitez-Lopez, who arrived from Mexico with her family as a 3-year-old and has lived in Sioux Falls since 2000. "Unfortunately, DACA is a two-year program. With that it means your career stops because your employer does not know if you're going to be here or not."

The panel's host, David Owen, the state chamber's president, said the panel did not collectively endorse two immigration bills that have both passed the Democratic controlled House of Representatives, though Kari Karst, president of BX Civil & Construction and Dells Materials Co., noted the Associated General Contractors of America did support HR 6, American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 , which passed the House in March.

"Why do we need these immigrants?" asked Karst. "Without those workers we would not be able to build and repair our roads and bridges in this state and in any state in this nation."

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South Dakota's lone congressman Dusty Johnson voted to oppose HR 6, as well as HR 1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act , that provides a pathway to temporary legal status for some agriculture workers. Neither bill has been voted on in the U.S. Senate.

Owen called on South Dakotans to contact their federal delegation and pressure them to reach across-the-aisle to reach a "final answer" on immigration that'll bring relief to DACA recipients and a new pathway to citizenship.

"There are 35,000 immigrants in South Dakota ," Owen said. "They pay millions of dollars in taxes. They fix your car. They are doctors and lawyers. They are part of the economy and the essential workforce."

Nathan Sanderson, executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association , acknowledged the political tensions on immigration reform, but noted the state enjoys a 2.9% unemployment rate with over 23,000 job openings. Even if every one of the roughly 3,000 people who are unemployed were to get a job, Sanderson said, "we're still about 20,000 jobs at least light of where we'd like to be."

Don Haggar, a former GOP leader in the South Dakota legislature and the state director of the Americans for Prosperity , said the immigration debate often pivots on inaccurate characterizations in the "partisan ping-pong" of political discourse.

"Dreamers are among the best and brightest in our country," maintained Haggar. "They're students, they are workers, they are earning their way and they are contributing to their communities."

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