Lois A. Bowers

As the race for the presidency continues, we’ve been hearing a lot about immigrants and immigration reform. Some candidates propose building more fences at U.S. borders, some want to establish a path to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the United States and some favor an approach somewhere in between.

Off the campaign trail, in senior living, the topic frequently comes up, too.

Immigration reform was one of the topics discussed by Rep. John K. Delaney (D-MD) and Rep. James B. Renacci (R-OH) during the Oct. 1 opening session of the recent National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care meeting in National Harbor, MD.

“If you go through the various cases for comprehensive immigration reform in this country, which I think is very compelling, certainly this industry and the healthcare industry in general is an industry that would benefit enormously from it,” Delaney said in answering a question from NIC CEO Robert Kramer about what role immigration policy could play in addressing the shortage of trained senior care workers. A disproportionate number of healthcare workers, about 25%, already are immigrants, Delaney added.

In general, the congressman said, immigrants are good for the healthcare system because they are paying more into the Medicare program than they are taking out, whereas nonimmigrants are taking more out of Medicare than they are putting in. Immigrants could aid Social Security in a similar way, he said. “I think this industry should be big supporters, proponents and cheerleaders for immigration reform, because it makes good financial sense” for the system, Delaney said.

Answering the same question from Kramer, Renacci said that immigrants could play an important role in replacing retiring citizens in the workforce and also in caring for those retired workers. “How are we going to take care of the aging population going forward, when we know that we don’t have growth in that younger workforce?” he said. “Some of it’s going to have to be through immigration.”

As part of a conversation that took place after Delaney and Renacci had left the stage, Elmcroft Senior Living CEO Pat Mulloy said, “If we can stop a lot of the conversation and fear-mongering that’s going on and begin to maybe hold up our industry as a light to the world about their life in this country—These are the people who are taking care of your mothers and fathers, and we need more of these individuals.”

Immigrants do “work most of us are not going to do for a living…but for a lot of folks, it’s an opportunity to get into the economic system,” he said, adding, “I think immigration reform could go a long way.”

The same morning as that NIC opening session—and not far away, in the nation’s capital—Assisted Living Federation of America/Argentum President and CEO James Balda was participating in a panel discussion on caregiving at insurer Genworth’s annual symposium on long-term care. “Historically, there have been visa programs for nurses when there were nursing shortages. Is there something that we could pursue similarly for caregivers?” he told me before the meeting.

In fact, many groups advocating on behalf of senior living providers see immigration reform as a solution to staffing shortages. The American Health Care Association, for instance, has shared with Congress its desire for simplified legal employment for immigrants. And LeadingAge research supports an expanded immigrant direct care workforce as one way to meet future workforce needs.

With a little less than 13 months to go until the national election, we’re certain to hear much more about immigration reform during presidential debates, news programs and ads. And then, after the election, the real work of trying to affect some sort of change will begin.

Do you think immigration reform is a solution to the industry’s increasing staffing needs?

Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers.