Aug. 22—HURON, S.D. — If the U.S. is going to maintain a workforce that is competitive with China, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said South Dakota and the rest of the country need to embrace stronger immigration policies.
Johnson said that strength doesn't just come from higher walls, but also a speeding up of the process by which immigrants can obtain their citizenship.
That was the prevalent messaging at an event hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit advocacy organization that prioritizes conservative and libertarian issues on Tuesday, Aug. 22 in Huron.
"We really should have empathy for people that are running from these terrible, terrible situations, even as we seek to have a country that has an orderly legal immigration process," Johnson said.
Solutions like developing a year-long agricultural worker visa, and moving border defense responsibilities out of state government jurisdictions Johnson lauded during the discussion.
"I think when it comes to illegal immigration and border security, I am, in general, less comfortable with state leadership," Johnson said. "I just think the federal government needs to do its job."
At the same time, Johnson said the existing process for getting immigrants processed legally to receive their citizenship is not functioning as efficiently as it could. Six weeks after former President Donald Trump put into place the
Remain in Mexico policy
, border crossings fell by nearly 85%. Johnson said that's because those who would cross would be held in Mexico instead of the U.S., and decided that wasn't worth it.
Still, Johnson said the fact that some asylum seekers are being told their credible fear hearing will be held in 2031 is evidence that a more equitable system is sorely needed.
"About 5% of the people crossing, ultimately, once we have a hearing, do have a claim to be legitimate asylum seekers," Johnson said. "They are in deep risk because of their ethnicity, because of their gender, because of their religion. They are fleeing persecution, not general street violence."
Johnson said investing in better technology to secure the border is the first step Congress can take to realizing that more empathetic approach.
"Until we have a secure border, you're going to have a hard time getting 218 votes to increase the number of work visas, or to get more flexibility to states on work visas," Johnson said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the U.S. Border Patrol recorded 825 migrants died trying to cross the border in 2022, three times more than in 2020.
The families, especially children, who do make it through the immigration maze face further challenges once they make it to the states. Huron School District Superintendent Kraig Steinhoff said his school district has the highest population of English as a second language learners in the state. 975 of Huron School District's 2,859 K-12 students are ESL learners.
"When you do that comparison, there are 149 school districts in the state of South Dakota, our ESL population, standing alone, is larger than 124 of those school districts," Steinhoff said.
Steinhoff said this segment of the school district's population is a huge strength, but limitations to the learning for certain students based on their lack of prior schooling in their home countries can create gaps in their education that prevent them from graduating.
For this reason, Steinhoff said Johnson and the rest of Congress should consider crafting a non-graduate certificate for those students who just want to enter the workforce after high school.
"They are a large part of our school system, and a large part of our success," Steinhoff said.
AFP flew three members of the South Dakota delegation, Rep. Will Mortenson, Rep. Tony Venhuizen and Sen. Casey Crabtree, as well as South Dakota business and media leaders, to the U.S.-Mexico border in June. The goal of the trip was to show lawmakers, decision makers and "influencers" to the immigration situation in South Texas, according to Keith Moore, state director of AFP in South Dakota.
John Pohlman, chairman and partner at Sioux Falls marketing firm Lawrence and Schiller, was one of those AFP invited on the border trip, and he said the situation could be described as getting "geometrically worse."
"It wasn't on my radar at all to go down there, and then to get down there and find out how bad it really is, and how difficult fixing the issue is going to be for our political leaders was my big takeaway," Pohlman said.
AFP has paid for government officials and business leaders to visit the border in South Dakota, Tennessee, Kansas and Florida. The organization is not required by South Dakota law to disclose its sources of funding, due to an exemption in its lobbying laws, in SDCL 2-12-16, that says lobbyists are not required to disclose lobbying for "any cost to educate or inform the public official on matters of public policy."