Biden and companies agree on one thing: US needs immigrant workers

The pressure on foreign labor comes as the country’s working-age population shrinks and companies say they can’t find enough workers to staff their operations due to the pandemic. There were 10.4 million job openings in the United States at the end of September, according to the Department of Labor.

“The processing issues are huge,” said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the US Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the most disruptive thing I hear from businesses on a regular basis. “

Processing times slow down “all kinds of other things a business needs to do. So when they can’t process things in a timely manner, that means people have to be taken off the payroll, ”Baselice said.

Foreign nationals already in the United States have been waiting for months – and in some cases more than a year – for their work authorization to be approved or extended due to processing delays at USCIS field centers, caused in part by the coronavirus pandemic. This forced some people, including asylum seekers, to quit their jobs in the United States after their work permits expired.

“These are working people” and “who have taken jobs to support themselves and their families,” said Emma Winger, a lawyer with the United States Immigration Council. “Now, because of this delay, they are losing their jobs. And a lot of those people were contributing to the economy and doing jobs that America really needs. “

Winger is representing an asylum advocacy group in a lawsuit over USCIS processing delays affecting healthcare workers, a truck driver, a fast food restaurant manager and others.

Delays within the agency also prevented USCIS from issuing green cards that would give foreigners the option to work in the United States permanently, leaving thousands to expire this year.

The fight is now playing in the debate over Democratic $ 1.7 trillion legislation to build better.

The house version of the bill would recover unused immigrant visas dating back to 1992, freeing up 157,000 employment-based visas, according to a Democrats estimate, in addition to around 262,000 places for family and diversity visas, which would also allow job seekers.

It would provide temporary protection and work authorization to an estimated 7 million undocumented immigrants – including dreamers and farm workers – who are already in the United States, which Democrats say will “speed up” the recovery. economic. The House version of the legislation would also provide $ 2.8 billion to help USCIS process these new cases and correct the processing delays.

Some business groups agree, saying the provisions of the immigration bill are needed to address labor shortages that are contributing to rising inflation.

“Immigrant workers are an essential element in calming the current rise in inflation,” the American Business Immigration Coalition wrote in a letter to the President and Democratic leaders this week. “Labor shortages lead to construction delays, higher production costs and lower inventory levels, all of which lead to inflation. “

But anti-immigration groups criticized the Democrats’ provisions in the bill as granting an “amnesty” to millions of people and warned that the changes could in fact have a negative effect on the economy.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates lower immigration levels, argued in an analysis of the Build Back Better Act that “the sudden increase in the supply of legal labor generated by the amnesty would likely contribute more to wage stagnation, even giving employers less incentive to raise wages.

Robert Law, director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the money included in the legislation would not be enough to resolve the backlog issues at USCIS.

“There are so many structural issues within USCIS that, frankly, I don’t think the money would make a big difference in reducing some processing times,” Law said. “There is too much volume, there are too many other obstacles.”

Democrats already face an uphill battle to push their massive social spending agenda through the Senate, where immigration reform sections of the bill have yet to be approved by the parliamentarian, who has already blocked attempts to ” include immigration reform.

Experts say the problem is twofold, highlighting what they see as arbitrary caps on job-based immigration, as well as agency-wide delays in processing immigration documents.

Employment-based visas are capped at 140,000 per year and typically expire at the end of the year if not used. Under current law, people in any country can only receive 7 percent of an annual job pool and family green cards. Immigrants from countries such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines can face green card expectations that stretch for years.

“We just don’t issue the number of visas that come in each year,” said Kristie De Peña, vice president of policy and director of immigration at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. “There is a lot of bureaucratic inefficiency in the process. And when you combine that with the caps in certain countries and the number of people still trying to come from those countries all the time, you end up with backlogs that last for a decade in some cases. “

According to an estimate by David Bier, a researcher at the Cato Institute, there are currently 1,551,864 employment-based green card applications. About 850,000 of these workers simply line up to adjust their status, meaning they are already working in the United States on another visa – which typically has limits on who foreigners can work for and for how many. time.

The Biden administration attributes the delays in part to the Trump administration.

“There is a huge backlog on these [work permit] requests, like so many others, which we have inherited and are working diligently to address, ”said a USCIS official who requested anonymity to discuss the previous administration. “We are therefore very aware of the cost, both economic and human, of the loss of people’s ability to work for no other reason than administrative delay. We know it is happening. We know this continues to happen. And we are determined to prevent that from happening as soon as possible for all who occupy this position. “

The agency said it had tried to reduce some of the backlog by temporarily suspending certain biometric requirements for certain groups and granting work permit extensions, among other measures.

Immigration experts as well as the Biden administration say the problem has been compounded by consulate and agency closures due to the pandemic, as well as policy changes under the Trump administration that have added hurdles for asylum seekers and immigrants coming to the United States and receiving work authorization.

The Trump administration “has reduced the resources of an already underfunded USCIS and created bottlenecks by creating bureaucratic hurdles,” according to pro-immigration reform group New American Economy. “This has resulted in unprecedented delays in processing immigration applications and higher rejection rates for temporary worker visa applications.”

Dan Wallace, the organization’s deputy chief executive, said that between 2015 and 2019, there was an approximately 40% drop in migration to the United States.

JPMorgan researchers wrote in a November report that the US population is about 3 million immigrants from what it would be if it continued at the pace of pre-2017 trends, “a large majority of whom would have been of age. to work”.

This drop in immigration has been made worse by the retirement of an additional 1.7 million people during the pandemic, the researchers wrote, which could hold back workforce growth and overall economic productivity. .

“Immigration rates could eventually rebound, but we think it will be a slow process,” they said. “Meanwhile, the resident population will continue to age. “

The Census Bureau estimated that immigrants increased the U.S. population by more than one million in 2016, before dropping steadily to around 480,000 by 2020, JPMorgan researchers said.

“This is sort of the worst possible time for us to experience a drop in immigration,” Wallace said, noting that immigrants are more likely to be of working age and have training that matches the standards. workforce gaps.

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