IMMIGRATIONLegal Work-Related Immigration Has Fallen by a Third Since 2020, Contributing to U.S. Labor Shortages

By Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez

Published 9 September 2022

The gap between the demand for labor and its supply was already forming in 2017. By July 2022, as the pandemic’s effects on the workplace were easing, the U.S. had 11.2 million job openings but only 5.7 million unemployed workers who might fill them. The trend that’s driving labor shortages: declining numbers of immigrants allowed to legally work in the U.S.

With Americans having fewer children and the nation’s labor force getting older, many employers in manufacturingaviation and other industries are having trouble finding enough workers.

The gap between the demand for labor and its supply was already forming in 2017. By 2018, the U.S. economy had increasingly more job openings than unemployed workers. That gap has widened during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people have diedretired early or simply dropped out of the job market.

By July 2022, as the pandemic’s effects on the workplace were easing, the U.S. had 11.2 million job openings but only 5.7 million unemployed workers who might fill them.

I’m a scholar of immigration and economics who researches a trend that’s driving labor shortages: declining numbers of immigrants allowed to legally work in the U.S. When I study these numbers, I see an important opportunity to resolve labor shortages that are wreaking economic havoc.

Work Visas
An estimated 45 million people living in the United States, roughly 14% of the population, were born elsewhere. About one in six U.S. workers is an immigrant.

Some of these foreign-born workers are legally employed on a temporary basis with an array of visas that make it possible to obtain jobs that run the gamut from software designers to apple pickers.

In some cases, these employees can obtain legal permanent residency – often called “a green card.” Some temporary work visas last longer than 12 months, so the number of workers with authorization is higher than the number of visas issued in that year. H-1B visas, which require a high level of education for fields like computer programming, last three years and can be renewed for another three.

The government issued a record 813,330 temporary employment-based visas in 2019. The total fell by about a third to 566,000 in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic got underway, and the numbers were basically flat in 2021 at 566,001 – the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency.

Of course it’s important that the government not issue visas in such a way that foreign workers depress wages or lead to the dismissal of gainfully employed Americans.

These lower wages could occur in the short run, but most empirical studies show there are long-term benefits in terms of what native-born people earn when immigration rises.