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Heartland Hospitality: Serving the Needs of the Midwest Economy through Immigration

RESEARCH Policy Brief by Sara McElmurry
A barista pours coffee from a silver pitcher into a cup
Louis Hansel

In order for the Midwest's hospitality industry to truly thrive, reform for the immigration system is imperative.

Executive Summary

The leisure and hospitality sector is a crucial part of the Midwest economy. Its vitality increasingly depends on immigrant workers and entrepreneurs, as US-born workers—with increasingly higher levels of education and shifting professional interests—seek work outside an industry that often requires long, demanding hours at relatively low hourly wages. Immigrants are a skilled, dependable, and growing part of the hospitality workforce, but limited visas—if any—for their legal hire mean that many do the work without authorization, creating challenges for employers and employees alike. As the country has grappled with immigration reform, the sector has struggled to fill jobs, particularly back-of-the-house positions in restaurant kitchens and hotel housekeeping departments.

In addition, limited visa options for immigrant entrepreneurs hamper their ability to build the independent hotels and restaurants that form the backbone of business districts in communities across the region. Lack of visas also reduces their opportunities to innovate and serve the creative cuisines that have contributed to US culinary culture.

The industry’s workforce challenges are complex, and an updated immigration system offers an important step in filling labor gaps. The immigration system must be updated to provide visas that facilitate the hiring of immigrants, protect them from exploitation, and allow them to build their businesses.

Past legislative attempts to reform the immigration system have languished in a divided Congress. And now, the Trump administration’s crackdown on unauthorized immigrants and support for legislative proposals to dramatically reduce legal immigration offer little hope for a sector that relies on foreign-born workers to stay fully staffed. It falls to Congress to create the supports and visas necessary for the sector to thrive. Midwest hospitality would benefit from a number of immigration policy changes:

  • A visa system that is responsive to labor market needs;
  • A process for unauthorized workers to adjust their status to legally work in their current jobs;
  • A reliable and consistent employment verification system to hire new workers; and
  • Visa channels that allow a wider variety of immigrant entrepreneurs to build businesses.

Immigration reforms are needed for the growing leisure and hospitality industry in the Midwest to thrive and bolster the region’s economy.

About the Author
Sara McElmurry
Nonresident Fellow, Immigration
Council expert Sara McElmurry
Sara McElmurry is a nonresident fellow at the Council, where she has contributed to a portfolio of research and analysis focused on immigration to the Midwest since 2014. She is also an award-winning communications strategist, having built media advocacy and multicultural outreach platforms for a number of national and local nonprofit organizations focused on immigration, education, housing, and health policy.
Council expert Sara McElmurry

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