By Peter White
WASHINGTON, DC — Partisan politics is paralyzing immigration reform in the U.S. There have been no major changes to immigration law in more than two decades and the system is broken.
The Dreamers are among generations of immigrants still waiting for green cards; the asylum system is essentially frozen; Congress has shown no appetite to take up the policy debate about what is fair, who do we want to let in and how many, and how do we speed up the current backlog of immigration cases?
While rightwing Republicans like Tennessee Governor Bill Lee rant about the crisis at the border, a number of economists, demographers, and other experts are sounding a different alarm: the country needs immigrants –from meatpacking to homebuilding to STEM professionals to nurses–to keep pace with the job-creating post-pandemic economy and long-term economic growth.
“Since the middle of 2019 to the end of 2021, there has been essentially zero net immigration into the U.S.,“ said Dr. Giovanni Peri, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis.
Based on U.S. Census monthly surveys, Peri said that 1.7 million fewer migrants entered the country from mid-2019-2022. That pandemic effect represents 1.1 percent of the U.S. labor force.
“Who are the immigrants that we are missing? Nine hundred thousand would have been college-educated immigrants who work in what we call the STEM sector— they would have been doctors, computer scientists, biomedical engineers,” Peri said.
Eight hundred thousand would have been non-college-educated workers in food, hospitality, personal service like elder care, childcare, and disabled care. These sectors have the highest number of job openings.
“Lastly, there would have been 400,000 foreign college students per year but who did not come to study in the U.S.” As a result, there will be between 100,000-150,000 fewer college-educated workers in the next few years.
“This decline in immigration happens at a time in which there is an incredible shortage of workers,” he said.
Many baby boomers retired and many younger Americans left jobs during the pandemic and retrained themselves to work from home. Many of their old jobs are still vacant.
“In July 2022 there were ten million unfilled jobs in the U.S. This number in 2019 before COVID was six million. So there are four extra four million unfilled jobs that cannot find a person and if you think about it, those 1.7 million immigrants who are missing, they would have gone almost halfway in filling this gap,” Peri said.
When employers can’t find enough workers, they raise wages to attract them. That results in higher prices at restaurants, healthcare services, and elder care. As a consequence businesses don’t grow very much or very fast.
“So higher prices, lower growth and reduction in opportunity for other jobs. What can we do?”
Peri said one thing that would help is putting more resources into the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to process visas more quickly in order to catch up on the backlog.
“If we really want to address the issue we should introduce some new policies in terms of immigration. For instance economic driven types of visas for workers who would work in these sectors—hospitality, construction, health care, elder care—which go well beyond what we have now,” Peri said.
Easier Said Than Done
“This divided immigration world that we live in means that it’s far more difficult to get anything passed,” said Gregory Z. Chen. A former immigration attorney, Chen is now Director of Government Relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Washington.
Chen said that severe delays in the last six or seven years have hampered processing immigration applications both through the courts and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
USCIS processes most of the applications and petitions in the employment based, family –based, and also some of the humanitarian applications.
“We have seen delays essentially across the board in almost all the categories.,” Chen said. He said that it takes two to three times longer to get an H-1 visa processed and approved than it did a few years ago.
“At the time President Obama left office there were about half a million immigration cases that were in the court queue. During the four years of the Trump Administration and at the time President Biden came into office, we had 1.3 million cases in the queue and today we have about 1.6 million cases waiting to be heard,” Chen said.
Nobody likes an inefficient USCIS system that typically takes 4-6 years to get to a final hearing. Applicants lose evidence; witnesses disappear, life circumstances change. Law enforcement agencies cannot operate effectively if they can’t get hearings on their cases.
Political right-wingers are frustrated with the system because it takes so long for decisions to get made. “The irony is that it was largely under the Trump Administration that the system went sideways,” Chen said.
Judges used to have more control over their dockets but in the Trump years, immigration courts all ran on autopilot out of the same playbook. “The backlog escalated to almost three times during the four years of the Trump administration and now it’s still taking time for the new administration to figure out how to improve the system,” he said.
The Republicans terminated President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Among many other things, it contained a lot of immigration reforms. The Inflation Reduction Act, the BBB’s weaker sister bill just signed by Biden, contains no immigration measures at all.