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Help Wanted: A Daily Struggle for Immigrant-owned Local Firm Immigrants Want Jobs, Lack Legal Status 

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Above image credit: Maria Morales her son Carlos, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School, are part of the family team managing their janitorial service firm, which is trying to expand, but has difficulty finding enough willing, qualified workers to hire. (Cody Boston | Flatland)
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Courting criticism from both the left and the right, President Joe Biden spent little time addressing the conundrum that is immigration in his State of the Union speech.  

And yet, he underscored an economic reality that is increasingly drawing the attention of businesses, economists and pretty much anyone with help wanted signs out for unfilled U.S. jobs.  

“If we don’t pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border and a pathway to citizenship for ‘dreamers,’ those on temporary status, farm workers, essential workers,” Biden said.  

Creating a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 10.5 million undocumented people has long been on Democratic wish lists.  

Those vast numbers of less-skilled workers without authority to work, people who don’t qualify for the limited visas for those with bachelor’s degree-level skills, are an increasing focus.  

Economists say those workers are crucial laborers that the U.S. needs as the nation finds itself with more people aging out of the labor market than there are younger workers to replace them.  

A recent edition of “Flatland in Focus” largely focused on hiring bachelor’s degree immigrant workers, people with skills in engineering, technology and medical fields.  

‘Flatland in Focus’ on Kansas City PBS

Biden’s comments about less-skilled workers at the other end of the wage scale illustrated a daily reality for Overland Park business owner Maria Morales.  

Job seekers’ inability to get work authorization is an obstacle to expanding KCK Maintenance Solutions, Morales’ family-run janitorial business.  

She’s trying to win more contracts to service commercial buildings, government offices and do construction cleanup.  

But she needs more reliable, efficient workers who can manage the work.  

Morales said the company turns away about 80% of the people who apply for the positions, which start at about $15 an hour. The reason is a lack of work authorization, the approval from immigration authorities confirming the person can legally work.  

“I am not able to hire these people because they just do not qualify for the employment,” Morales said. “So, it’s definitely very hard.”  

The vast majority of applicants are women. And many are single mothers.  

Their countries of origin often include El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Increasingly, they include Colombia and Venezuela.  

Morales opened her business about three years ago, after working for other janitorial firms for about 10 years.  

Morales, who immigrated at age 18 from Acapulco, Mexico, speaks eloquently about the American dream, the opportunities she’s found here and her hope that others could too.  

The American dream, she said, has brought stability to her family, a peaceful life and the ability to support her children.  

Two sons, a daughter and her husband also help run the business.  

Biden’s speech also tapped into the situation of Dina Rosales.  

At age 26, she is the general manager for KCK Maintenance Solutions.  

Rosales also is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient. DACA is a program that allows her work authorization and a driver’s license, but not a clear path to citizenship.  

Dina Rosales, general manager for KCK Maintenance Solutions, sitting at her desk.
Dina Rosales, general manager for KCK Maintenance Solutions, is a DACA recipient. (Cody Boston | Flatland)

DACA addresses people who were brought to the United States, without the proper paperwork, as children. Most often, this was by their parents. The child had no choice in the matter, and many don’t even learn about their status until they try to obtain a driver’s license or get the type of early first job that many teenagers hold.  

Rosales immigrated from Honduras as a 5-year-old, with her mother and sister.  

DACA grew out of the lack of support for passing legislation to legalize the so-called “dreamers,” students without documented status. The first version of the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was introduced in 2001.  

The DACA program was created under the Obama administration and continues to face court challenges.

It often falls to Rosales to tell potential janitorial employees that they can’t be hired without work status.  

“It’s just hard,” she said. “It’s hard to see that disappointment in their eyes when you’ll have to turn them away. And as an immigrant myself, you know, I see myself.”  

“It’s hard to see that disappointment in their eyes when you’ll have to turn them away. And as an immigrant myself, you know, I see myself.”  

Dina Rosales, general manager for KCK Maintenance Solutions

In January, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce proposed doubling the number of immigrants allowed to legally arrive and work annually.  

“I talk to CEOs and leaders of businesses of every size, industry and region every day — and to a person, they tell me this: This workforce shortage is a crisis. It is contributing to supply chain disruptions and rising inflation. It is undermining business growth,” said Suzanne P. Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber, in a recent speech.  

Clark said the nation had 11 million vacant jobs.  

“We must double the number of people legally immigrating to the U.S. And we must create a permanent solution for the ‘dreamers’—those young men and women who know no other home and who contribute to their communities, but whose legal status is in limbo.” 

Labor shortages are tied to inflation, which has risen 6.4% over the past year. The unemployment rate currently stands at 3.4%, the lowest level since May 1969. Competition for scarce workers drives up wages, and ultimately prices for goods and services. 

Local labor expert Judy Ancel doesn’t believe that even continued difficulties in hiring are likely to convince Congress to revisit the visa systems, or the imbalance that exists for lower-skilled Latino immigrants, who have few legal options to immigrate. 

“Our immigration policy is so discriminatory against a Latin Americans, unless, unless they’re Cubans,” Ancel said. 

Ancel is president of the Cross Border Network, a Kansas City-based organization that supports human rights in Latin America. She also directed the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s labor education program for nearly 30 years.  

Mira Mdivani, an Overland Park business immigration attorney, also doesn’t expect much to change for this category of workers, despite the labor needs within the economy. Mdivani founded Mdivani Corporate Immigration Law Firm.  

Visas for seasonal workers, which could serve the agricultural needs of Kansas, are limited to 66,000 a year, she said.  

The corporate clients that she advises don’t even try for that category. Their chances are too low because the need is in the millions nationally, Mdivani said.  

“On one hand, the government wants employers to do things legally,” she said. “But on the other hand, they basically make a mockery of the situation to provide only 66,000 visas for season. It’s a joke.”  

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.

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