Immigrants can help relieve the labor shortage



  • Guest-worker programs would ease pressure on the border, leading to better enforcement.

Metro New York is home to more than 20 million people. Yet the Federal Aviation Administration issued a warning on Monday that anyone flying out of the area’s three major airports could experience hours-long delays due to staffing shortages. Why won’t Americans get back to work?

Part of the problem is the trillions of dollars that Congress spent on pandemic relief, which provided incentives not to work. Eviction bans and student-loan pauses gave the able-bodied an excuse to stay home. Still, labor-force participation typically rebounds after an economic downturn as jobs become more plentiful. The question is what’s taking so long.

It’s a dilemma that is exacerbating inflation and has economists scratching their heads. In February 2020, just before the Covid shutdowns, the labor-force participation rate was 63.4%. Today, it’s decreased to 62.1%. The gap might seem small, but it translates to 3.4 million workers, and it has persisted despite the sharpest rise in nominal wages in more than two decades. Employers are offering signing bonuses and higher pay, yet job openings continue to exceed the number of people looking for work.

According to Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office, engagement with the workforce has diminished across all segments of the population. Labor-force participation has slid among men and women, prime-age workers and retirees, the high-skilled and the low-skilled. The “same picture emerges nearly regardless of how one cuts the data," he wrote recently. “Engagement in work is down in the United States, with important ramifications for all of the major pressing national economic issues."

This labor shortage goes a long way toward explaining the current crunch at the southern border. The Department of Homeland Security reported this week that migrant arrests so far in the current fiscal year—which doesn’t end until Sept. 30—have already set a new record and are expected to pass two million for the first time. A Wall Street Journal report on Tuesday noted that part of the problem is mixed messages from the White House. Biden administration officials have told people not to come while continuing to admit those who come anyway.

Lax enforcement encourages lawless behavior, a rule of thumb that the political left steadfastly ignores. “Smugglers also told migrants that President Biden’s immigration policies would prove more lenient, an idea that took hold once word spread through WhatsApp chats and Facebook posts that at least some people who had attempted to reach the U.S. were allowed to stay," the Journal said.

Would-be migrants are also getting word that jobs are easy to come by, and that matters more to them than anything our president says. News coverage these days tends to dwell on asylum-seekers, but some 70% of illegal border crossers are single adults simply looking for work. Republicans worry about the U.S. becoming a welfare magnet for migrants, and there’s always the chance of that happening as Democrats strive to expand the size, scope and accessibility of government benefits. But the overwhelming majority of people entering the country unlawfully are seeking employment, not handouts, and they have no viable legal option.

A sensible border policy would provide ways for economic migrants to enter U.S. labor markets that are clearly struggling to find workers, but lawmakers are too busy using them as political pawns. Public concern about illegal immigration has grown, and there is no Republican appetite for guest-worker programs and amnesty proposals as long as border security is an afterthought. Democrats, meanwhile, have come to equate any border enforcement with xenophobia. The upshot is a Texas governor who is up for re-election in November sending busloads of illegal immigrants to New York City and taunting its mayor.

Politicians, the saying goes, are incapable of seeing past the next election. But letting the border situation fester could have economic ramifications that last decades. An economy starved for workers is less productive and can’t grow as fast as it otherwise would. A smaller workforce means fewer people funding such costly public benefits programs as Social Security and Medicare, as the U.S. population ages and people have fewer children. Between the early 1950s and 2019, the birthrate per 1,000 people in the U.S. fell from 24 to 11.

More legal immigration alone won’t solve our labor-force problems, but foreign workers could help ease shortages in such industries as agriculture, forestry and hospitality. Guest-worker programs would also free up more border resources to vet asylum claims and track narcotics traffickers and other bad actors who currently avoid detection by hiding among the far more numerous economic migrants. Polling suggests that the administration’s handling of the border will hurt Democrats politically in the short run. Unfortunately, economic damage could be with us much longer.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text


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