With baby boomers retiring and U.S. birthrates and migration from Mexico falling, the nation is relying on a mixture of immigrants and refugees to keep its labor force growing.

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Roberto Rodriguez works at a meatpacking company in Nebraska’s capital. For years, most of his colleagues were fellow Mexicans and Central Americans. These days, the men standing by his side increasingly are Middle Easterners.

“We communicate through hand signals,” said Rodriguez, who came here from his native state of Zacatecas. “Working with Arabs is something I never thought I’d be doing. I thought the pipeline of Mexicans was forever.”

Several times a day, his Muslim colleagues pause to pray. He finds the breaks a bit odd, even annoying, but he’s willing to cut his co-workers some slack.

“I think we Mexicans pray all the time too, especially when you work in the meat industry,” he said as he made the sign of the cross. “I try to be as welcoming as possible because I think we understand rejection.”

In Lincoln, the face of immigrant labor is changing. Workers are harder to come by, and immigrant labor is no longer the exclusive domain of Mexicans and Central Americans.

It’s a dynamic playing out across the U.S.

By 2020, the private sector will be facing a shortage of 7.5 million workers, said Ali Noorani, of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, citing a study by the American Action Forum, a moderate policy institute that promotes rights for immigrants.

“We are increasingly dependent on a combination of documented and undocumented workers, refugees with temporary worker status,” said Noorani, author of “There Goes The Neighborhood,” a book that examines the changing demographics in the U.S.

The think tank’s more conservative counterparts at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), who favor stronger immigration controls, argue that higher wages would lure more American workers.

So-called labor shortages, argued Mark Krikorian, executive director of CIS, “is a sign, information for the employer that they need to change their way of doing business. They need to consider things like automation, change their recruiting strategies. Pay higher wages and offer better benefits, like free van shuttle service to pick up workers.”

Krikorian is also opposed to a temporary guest-worker program, saying “there is nothing more permanent than a guest worker. People are not widgets. Eventually they will want to settle down.”

Some companies in the Midwest are literally rolling out the welcome mat for immigrants and refugees. Muslim prayer rooms, complete with rugs, have been installed for Middle Eastern workers. Some employers help workers enroll in English classes. Others push for a more robust guest-worker program to fill jobs once filled by Mexican laborers.

“We don’t have enough labor to meet demand,” said Clayton Naff, executive director of the Lincoln Literacy Council. “We are a major resettlement place for refugees, a magnet for immigrants, and like all America, we have many new Americans trying to integrate. We need workers to keep our community thriving.”

With baby boomers retiring and U.S. birthrates and migration from Mexico falling, the nation is relying on a mixture of immigrants and refugees to keep its labor force growing.

Immigrants make up about 17 percent of the U.S. labor force, with about one-quarter of those undocumented. Without the current rate of both legal and undocumented immigration, the total U.S. workforce would shrink dramatically over the next 20 years, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center.

Many industries, particularly agriculture and construction, are already taking a big hit, said economist Pia Orrenius, an expert on labor and demographic changes at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

For example, Hurricane Harvey is challenging the building industry as workers head to Houston to rebuild the city, she said.

“What we are seeing everywhere is a tight labor pool that’s increasingly drying up and putting pressure on employers, leaving them in a bind,” Orrenius said. “The future workforce is moving away from undocumented workers because those workers are no longer there. Fewer are coming across the border. The economy will find a way to re­adjust somehow, but in the end consumers, who once benefited from undocumented workers, will pay more.”

Not long ago, jobs, particularly in the labor-intensive meatpacking industry, went almost exclusively to Mexicans and Central Americans. But with fewer Mexican immigrants migrating illegally to the United States, refugees seeking a safe haven in the U.S. are taking their place. The gradual departure of Mexican workers is opening up new opportunities.

The decline is fueled by a demographic shift in Mexico, including a lower birthrate and aging population, tighter border enforcement under the Trump administration and a fierce anti-immigrant mood in much of the U.S. In addition, the journey north has become increasingly dangerous with human smuggling linked to drug cartels on the rise.

The decline in the Mexican birthrate coincides with that of the United States. In 2016, the U.S. fertility rate was the lowest on record, continuing a long-term decline of 67 percent since 1991.

Meatpacking companies have tried recruiting whites and African-American workers in Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City and most last no longer than a week, said Dan Stull, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Kansas who has long studied the beef and poultry industry.

Stull says that when he meets with ranchers and meatpacking owners over coffee, they frequently tell him they hope that President Trump is not serious about building a border wall because they need immigrant workers to keep coming to the U.S.

“Now we’re being nostalgic for Mexicans — the same ones we once complained about — and now the same employers who voted for Trump want them back,” Stull said. “That doesn’t surprise me, and yet they want the wall. I don’t get it. Humans are inconsistent beings.”