The United States must solve its illegal immigration problems before it can address an intensifying shortage of workers with more immigrants, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said Tuesday.

Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who oversees border issues as chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, told an audience at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that he knows the economic health of the U.S. is threatened without more people coming in.

But at a conference focused on the role of immigration in the Midwestern and U.S. economies, Johnson spent much of his keynote address focused on illegal immigration. “Until we fix [illegal immigration], we’re not going to be able to get to the economic thing we have to fix,” Johnson said. “I’m just pointing out the political reality.”

Johnson, who was a chief executive of a metals manufacturing firm before being elected in 2010, acknowledged the country is facing a shortage of workers and said he has seen it in his own company and heard about it from executives in Wisconsin and elsewhere. “We don’t have enough workers in manufacturing. We don’t have enough workers in the trades,” Johnson said.

He noted one reason for that is more parents are steering teenagers to college rather than factory work. But he also said the legal immigration system, which could be used to increase the U.S. workforce, is too heavily used for rounding out families of existing immigrants.

“We don’t have a functioning legal immigration system that is tied toward work requirements,” Johnson said, adding that about two-thirds of immigrants who gain legal entry to the country every year do so for family reasons rather than to fill an in-demand job.

Economists for years have warned that declining birthrates have posed a threat to the nation’s long-term economic growth. In recent decades, the U.S. has increasingly relied on immigration to drive population growth.

“This is about the long-term growth rate of the country,” Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said at Tuesday’s conference. “If you just do the math, it’s very hard to deliver 3 percent economic growth over the long term if we don’t have stronger population growth than we’re experiencing right now. The country is still getting educated about that math.”

Minnesota’s population growth this decade is entirely due to immigrants. The state since 2010 has added about 71,000 people, a figure reached when the 33,000 native-born Minnesotans who have left the state in that time is subtracted from the 104,000 immigrants who have arrived.

Also at the conference, Michelle Rivero, immigrant and refugee affairs director for the city of Minneapolis, said Trump administration policies appear designed to weaken immigration at every level, including the entry of asylum-seeking refugees and highly skilled workers who are sought by U.S. employers.

Rivero, an immigration lawyer for 15 years before taking the city job a few months ago, said she now recommends that legal immigrants seek assistance from lawyers even for normal naturalization. She said she thinks the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “is looking for reasons to drop applicants.”

Johnson said he would like to see Congress and the White House stop trying to forge a one-shot, comprehensive immigration law and instead write smaller bills that focus on areas of agreement, then return to fix things that aren’t working. “I’m a manufacturer,” he said. “I believe in the continuous improvement approach to problems.”

He said he would reintroduce a bill he has previously sponsored to let states administer a system of guest-worker visas, people allowed to stay in the U.S. for one year to take jobs. In the past, he has suggested a level of 500,000 guest-worker visas, with 250,000 allocated on a 5,000-per-state basis and the remaining 250,000 allocated by population.

That number may be too low to meet the needs of U.S. businesses, he said, but added, “We need metrics to find out the right number.”

He said he believes state employment officials are better suited to administer such visas because they know more about local needs. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin, he pointed out, have a year-round need for workers while vegetable growers in other states need more people chiefly during harvest periods.

Johnson also told Kashkari to encourage the Fed to take a bigger role providing information about the long-term pressure the U.S. faces on economic growth as well as the role immigrants could play to relieve it.

“One of my concerns is we don’t have an informed conversation,” Johnson said. “You hear rhetoric and demagoguery on both [political] sides. It’s very similar to the trade debate … It’s all part of the same conversation.”


Correction: A previous version mistakenly described Minnesota’s population growth from 2010 to 2017.