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With the state’s unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent, many area businesses are finding it harder and harder to hire skilled workers they need to compete and grow. This is particularly true in health care, manufacturing and other important industries to the area.

Across America, despite growing anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, pragmatic business and community leaders are turning to immigration and immigrants to help with current economic challenges.

Last spring, the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based policy research group focused on economic growth, issued a groundbreaking report that lays out a compelling case for a place-based immigration visa (the “Heartland Visa”), modeled on similar programs in Canada and Australia.

Analyzing America’s population stagnation and its economic costs

Currently, about half of U.S. counties are losing population each year. Even more dramatic is the fact that 80 percent of U.S. counties have lost prime working age population (people aged 25-54) over the past decade.

It is estimated that by 2037, two-thirds of U.S. counties will have fewer prime working age residents than they did in 1997, despite the fact that the nation’s population will have grown by 100 million people.

In Illinois, this problem is severe. EIG estimates that 97 percent of people in Illinois live in a county that lost prime working age population between 2007-2017. While Champaign County was fortunate to experience significant population growth (3.2 percent) between 2011-2016, immigrants made up a disproportional share, growing at twice the rate (6.3 percent) during the same time frame.

Immigrants in Champaign County are a critical supply of much-needed labor. Immigrants comprise 11.6 percent of the county’s population, but comprise 14.4 percent of our working-age population. The immigrant community in Champaign County is also a highly educated one. Among those immigrants not enrolled in college, nearly 60 percent have college degrees with a nearly even split between those with doctoral degrees, masters degrees and a four-year degree. This is a workforce with the skills on par with America’s most talented metropolitan areas.

The EIG report also sheds new light on the economic consequences of population loss and stagnant growth, detailing impacts on housing, local fiscal budgets and what EIG labels economic “dynamism.”

Immigration as a solution to America’s demographic woes

EIG’s “Heartland Visa” seeks to address the demographic crisis in the U.S. endemic to stagnant population growth and rapid aging. These trends foreshadow serious demographic problems that Japan and parts of Western Europe have confronted in recent decades. Their report documents “a clear supply problem for struggling places — one that upskilling efforts or training programs alone would do little to address.” The proposal for a national place-based visa for skilled immigrants draws from successful programs in Canada and Australia, as well as the current U.S. J-1 visa waiver for medical doctors serving rural areas with chronic health care worker shortages.

Beyond changes to the federal immigration system, which seem highly unlikely in the near term given the gridlock in our national political discourse, many communities are embracing immigrants as part of larger economic and community development plans, recognizing their potential to help our communities grow and prosper.

Here in Champaign County, the University Y’s New American Welcome Center is bringing together community leaders to develop strategies to ensure that our recent growth continues in to the future. On Friday, business, university, non-profit and government officials will gather for a seminar on “Building a Welcoming Economy” to discuss how we can develop economic and community development strategies that include immigrants and that leverage immigrant contributions. It will run from 8 a.m. to noon at Lodgic, 1807 S. Neil St., C. Reserve a spot by sending an email to mike@universityymca.org.

At the gathering, we will explore programs that other communities have pioneered but will focus on our local needs by examining strategies on workforce inclusion, immigrant entrepreneurship, international student retention, skilled immigrant integration and consider what models would work best for Champaign County.

America’s demographic trends and their negative economic consequences are undeniable. Across the American heartland, increasing numbers of communities, are actively working to welcome immigrants as a means to building regional economic prosperity. We ignore these opportunities at our own peril.

Mike Doyle is executive director of the University YMCA. Craig Rost is the former executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp.