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Where is the “Rational Middle” Anyway?

Recently, I attended two screenings of the third and newly minted video from the Rational Middle on Immigration, a series of documentaries undertaken by the Rational Middle's media team and the Center for Houston’s Future.

The first was held at the Bates Law School at the University of Houston. The screening, like many, was followed by a panel discussion of the documentary films aimed to solicit feedback from the panel and the audience.

The panel, moderated by Loren Steffy, Executive Producer and Researcher of the “Rational Middle,” included Mike Holland, COO of MAREK, a specialty subcontractor based in Houston; Gordon Quan, Managing Partner & Co-founder, Quan Law Group; and Geoffrey Hoffman, Director, University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic. The audience seemed to be comprised of law students and several representatives of the construction community. Missing, it seemed to me, were more of the representatives of activist organizations who have a vested interest in the issue. There were several “DACA” recipients who joined the conversation.

The documentaries stated the case of the current status of immigration, especially the clearly defined skilled workforce shortage in the wake of Hurricane Harvey that hit the Houston Region and Gulf Coast in late 2017. That event caused “$9 billion in damage” and created a driving need for a workforce to re-build, a workforce that does not currently exist. According to the Rational Middle team, one solitution is to "allow Houston’s 500,000 undocumented workers to come out of the shadows to help rebuild the community together.”

According to the panelists, there are a number of roadblocks to accomplishing that goal. Among them is the backlog of 700,000 cases in the immigration courts, the elimination of DACA by the current administration, and the fear on the part of workers covered by DACA to come forward for fear of audits and possible deportation by ICE. Even tougher is the “second wall” of the backlog of 13-15 months for the courts to decide those cases. There was a statement made by one of the panelists that there is a current visa backlog and that the process can take 15-20 years to complete.

The panel urged more discussion of the “economics of immigration” and less about the emotions that seem to emerge in every political discussion in the country around this subject. The panel made the point that, in the current environment, undocumented workers are being paid in cash or provided with 1099s. Most of those workers are not paying income taxes.

Even when there are ICE audits on jobsites that require I-9 documents, many of the workers have fraudulent or no documents that meet the requirements and are fired or taken away by the ICE agents. This process makes the growing skilled labor shortage even worse.

A key point is that there seems to be little movement in Congress on the discussion of “comprehensive” immigration reform even though the president has expressed a desire to get something done. Just recently, there was a bi-partisan bill proposed that would offer some solution to the DACA issue. Currently House leadership seems reluctant to call for a vote.

Pressure is building for something to be done. According to the latest economic data, the unemployment numbers equal the number of folks looking for jobs and that means a tightening in the available workforce as well as the “now” need for more qualified workers, especially in the construction industry.

The second screening of the Rational Middle series that I attended covered the same ground and was presented to a group at the James A. Baker III Hall on the Rice campus in Houston. My colleague and fellow writer Scott Braddock has reported on that session, which you can read about here.

All this brought me back to the original question of “Where is the Rational Middle?” The question has several meanings, but one is whether or not there is even a rational middle who is willing to set aside partisan politics and the emotions to examine the data and the current economic stats?

In the current situation of a growing economy, several natural disasters, a major demographic shift, and a shrinking skilled workforce, it seems to me that the “Rational Middle,” those who are trying to continue to build America and those who are skilled in the industry, must persuade the politicians who make policy for the country that now is the time to find a “Rational Solution” to the immigration issues that will help solve the skilled workforce issues for today and tomorrow.

You can watch the documentaries here.