To say that everyone is hiring has become a common refrain lately, and help-wanted signs are indeed everywhere. Restaurants, hospitals, and school districts are desperately looking to hire workers. Even my doggie day care recently posted a job opening.
The data bear it out: In the last month of 2021, there were 10.9 million openings — a near-record number — and fewer than 7 million unemployed workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means there were approximately 1.7 job openings for every unemployed worker in December, which is the highest ratio in two decades.
To be sure, the underlying reasons behind the current worker shortage are complex. There is a confluence of many factors at play, mostly spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic: the so-called Great Resignation and Great Retirement of last year, not to mention that the coronavirus has killed nearly a million Americans.
Yet one unexplored reason behind the tight labor market is another type of shortage: immigration flows. The United States has been admitting fewer immigrants in recent years due to policy restrictions put in place because of the pandemic. But the slowdown began earlier, with the relentless war on immigration set in motion by the Trump administration.
Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at the University of California at Davis, whose work focuses on the intersection of labor economics and immigration, recently calculated that the US economy is missing 2 million working-age immigrants.
“The net inflow of immigrants into the United States has essentially halted for almost 2 years,” he wrote last month. Peri told me he started to see the downward trend since before the pandemic, “the effect of some [immigration policy] restrictions. And then, in the beginning of 2020, you start seeing a pandemic travel ban. For two years COVID-19 has been a huge cause of this.”
Peri said that roughly 1 million of the 2 million lost immigrants would have been college educated. “Some of them are scientists who used to come in large numbers. And now those doors have been closed by the pandemic,” Peri said. “Not only are we not finding people to walk the dogs, we’re also not having [immigrants] in the labs, in the clinics, in the engineering centers that push technology forward. We have fewer of them, and that’s a potentially massive effect for economic productivity in the longer run.”
The industries that rely on immigrant workers have higher rates of unfulfilled jobs. “Sectors like food or hospitality have massive shortages, in the order of 15 to 20 percent of jobs not filled relative to the total,” Peri said.
It’s hard to quantify how many of those 2 million immigrants didn’t come due to the pandemic restrictions and how many didn’t due to the policy decisions from the Trump era. But perhaps the main legacy of the former president is how he dramatically altered America’s immigration system: Trump signed more than 400 immigration-related executive actions.
Yet President Biden hasn’t exactly rushed to open the doors to let more immigrants come in. Some reporting suggests that the reason why he’s kept some of Trump’s restrictionist policies in place is purely political. That would be ironic, because even as immigration has plummeted, conservatives still blame Biden for an alleged out-of-control crisis at the border. Make that make sense.
According to economists, the labor shortages won’t get better any time soon. It’s why immigrants should be seen as part of the solution to alleviate the labor shortage and inflation.
Consider one example of the immigration shortfall dynamic at play locally.
Last May, Biden issued a new designation for Temporary Protected Status to eligible Haitians already in the United States. The program protects its beneficiaries from deportation and allows them to work for a period of 18 months. But, according to local Haitian leaders, there has been a significant processing delay in applications, and thousands haven’t received their work permits.
“This is a huge issue,” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan. “You have these people ready and willing to work, but they can’t.”
While the scale is small — Gabeau said her office has helped file over 2,000 TPS applications for local Haitians and none have received their work permit — fast-tracking these cases would still go a long way.
But the politics of immigration always seem to get in the way of common sense. “Immigration should be talked about first in economic and demographic terms because it’s a hugely important engine of growth,” Peri said. He’s right.
Granted, immigration is not a switch that can be turned on and off with the flick of a finger. But if we don’t prioritize letting more immigrants in, economic recovery and growth will be harder.