(CNN) — Immigration has long been a political soccer ball in America. But if you’re wondering why the country remains short of labor almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s partly because it doesn’t have enough immigrants.
Immigrants are vital to the US economy and fill thousands of jobs at home, jobs that many Americans do not want to do. In 2020, legal immigrant worker visa processing was halted and only resumed in late 2021.
According to new research from the University of California, Davis, there were about 2 million fewer working-age immigrants in the United States by the end of last year than if pre-pandemic immigration had continued unchanged.
Giovanni Peri, author of the research and director of the Center for Global Migration, said, “One of the reasons there are so many vacancies and unfilled jobs in the US is that we are missing many immigrants who were coming regularly before COVID ” at UC Davis.
The immigration debate has been reignited by the rise at the US-Mexico border. In March 2020, President Trump invoked Title 42, a law enacted during the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has kept immigrants and potential asylum seekers out of the country.
Asylum seekers can legally work in the United States while they await resolution of their cases. During that waiting period, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, a process that usually takes 180 days before they are authorized.
But the decline in legal immigration over the past two years has hurt American businesses. Especially in industries that require low-skilled labor: construction, agriculture, and hospitality.
“We can’t make up for the loss until we actually change the immigration laws and allow more people to come in every year,” Perry said. “The way we are catching up is that we are processing visas at the speed that was done before Covid. So this gap will be there for some time.”
The lack of available labor pushed up wages, leading to inflation. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said that in addition to an aging workforce, there is a shortage of foreign workers contributing to the labor shortage.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said last month that “there are about 1.5 million missing workers due to the decline in net immigration and the increase in deaths during the pandemic.”
The greatest impact has been on industries such as construction, agriculture and especially hospitality, which rely on migrant workers. These types of industries had higher job vacancy rates last year, according to research from UC Davis, adding to the current labor shortage. There are currently 10.3 million open jobs in the US: 377,000 in construction and 1.6 million in hospitality. This number has been increasing in recent months.
“The [sector] Hospitality was employing a large number of immigrants, with 30%–40% of the workforce in that sector being foreign born. And so you’re losing a lot of them, and potentially that’s a big impact,” Perry said.
The restaurant industry has been hit hardest by the decline in immigration. Slow service, restaurants closed for lunch, high prices are the result of a labor shortage. According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry is on track to grow 14% over the next decade, while the US-born workforce is expected to grow only 10%. There are more restaurant jobs than the US workforce can fill. According to the National Restaurant Association, 60% of restaurant operators face a staffing shortage that limits their operational efficiency.
But new legislation, “The Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act,” was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year. The legislation would create a new visa program for workers in industries such as hospitality.
“Immigration reform is an economic necessity for the restaurant industry,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association. “Allowing more legal immigration will be beneficial to employers who are in dire need of workers and people who are looking for new opportunities.”
Of the 2 million potential immigrants who died during the pandemic, about 1 million were college-educated, according to research from UC Davis. These workers would be considered “high-skilled workers” who could come to the US on special H-1B visas.
Those highly skilled workers are job multipliers. According to a UC Berkeley report, for every highly skilled worker an additional 2.5 jobs are created.
“High-skilled immigration is incredibly important,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group. “We shouldn’t be thinking of it as something that addresses short-term scarcity, although that may help, but something that is really important in the long term: innovation, productivity, growth and the health of the economy.”
Earlier this month, the American Federation of Farm Bureaus, along with 350 other farm groups, called on the Senate to pass a farm reform bill passed by the House to address the farm labor crisis. Skilled foreign farm workers are the backbone of US agriculture and have traditionally been in the country on seasonal H-2A visas, which posted its highest utilization rate this year, according to the Farm Bureau. But many people associated with agriculture say that this is not enough and still they are not getting labourers.
“The farm labor crisis is hampering production and contributing to food price inflation. “We must address this jobs crisis that threatens America’s farms, so our producers can continue to feed, feed, and feed our country,” the letter to Senate leaders said.
But, according to the Labor Department, 317,000 temporary H-2A jobs were certified last year, more than six times the number in 2005. But only 80% of those certified jobs got visas.