For over 35 years, the American political system has been unable to make any significant change to U.S. immigration policy. In June 2023, a bipartisan coalition of representatives introduced the Dignity Act, a comprehensive immigration reform bill. This followed a poll showing that four out of five Americans support bipartisan cooperation on immigration that would address labor shortages and inflation.
While U.S. politics may continue to prevent an immigration grand bargain, there are many commonsense reforms the government could take to fill gaps in our current workforce. American policymakers need to wake up to a new reality: The country is running out of workers, and immigration must be part of the solution.
Facing food price inflation as high as 12 percent last year, Americans have begun to acutely feel the impact of labor shortages in the agricultural sector on their wallets. With an aging population and a labor force participation that has declined since the 1990s, it is clear that these shortages will only get worse over time — not only in agriculture, but also in many other sectors of the economy. Labor migration will become essential to sustaining long-term economic growth.
In 2022, the U.S. had almost twice as many job openings as unemployed workers. These trends are unlikely to change any time soon. Between 2011 and 2021, the total number of job openings increased, at an average of 12 percent per year, while the total working-age population rose only by around 3 percent per year. The COVID pandemic seems to have only worsened these trends, pushing many older Americans out of the labor force.
But there is a simple solution.
If there is an insufficient number of native-born workers to fill existing jobs, immigration from abroad is the best way to ensure the U.S. economy continues to grow. Employers make the demand for legal avenues for labor mobility clear: The number of workers on the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program has tripled between 2013 and 2021. Demand for H-2B visas, the program’s equivalent for non-agricultural sectors, is soaring as well.
These existing visa programs are targeted only at employers with seasonal needs. But many of the most critical long-term labor shortages will be in non-seasonal occupations. Immigrants already make up 38 percent of home health aides around the country. By 2060, a quarter of the U.S. population will be over 65, requiring an additional 75 percent of home health care workers. As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age and life expectancy will increase, the U.S. will need to make it easier for foreign eldercare workers to come into the country.
Construction poses a similar bottleneck. Estimates show the industry will need more than a half a million additional workers in 2023 after setting record-high shortages with an average of over 390,000 job openings per month in 2022. And following enactment of the CHIPS Act, the semiconductor industry has been stricken by shortages affecting a wide range of occupations.
Opening new and improving existing labor mobility channels could also significantly reduce the burden of irregular migration. If legal avenues are blocked or poorly designed, more U.S. employers may be likely to consider hiring undocumented workers.
Consider the evidence: As the allocation of H-2A visas for workers from Mexico increased over the past decade, irregular border crossings fell in tandem.
Congress and the Department of Labor should specify more comprehensively a list of occupations with critical worker shortages and ensure that labor mobility pathways allow levels of migration sufficient to address the employers’ needs. Canada, for example, last year introduced changes to its shortage list that allow more workers in occupations such as long-term care aides, hospital attendants, and teachers.
The U.S. should follow suit. Updating Schedule A could be a key change that would make hiring from abroad easier for employers. This list of occupations facing dire shortages exempts employers from certain costly and time-consuming steps of the process. However, this list has remained the same since 1991 despite the ongoing demographic and labor market changes.
There are other actions the executive can take while Congress remains inactive. Adjusting the definition of “seasonality” could make a big difference by opening the current worker programs to employers in, for example, dairy and mushroom picking. These sectors are not eligible for the H-2A and H-2B programs as their work is year-round rather than seasonal. Similarly, allowing workers to change employers could help address some workers’ concerns. Raising the H-2B cap would help a number of employers, many of whom have been increasingly vocal about the need to modernize the current immigration system.
If our politicians fail to act on immigration, we will all continue to face the consequences of a shrinking labor force. Other countries are moving ahead: Canada has already begun a special program, recruiting high-skilled workers with H-1B visas in the U.S. Now more than ever, America’s economic success relies on welcoming new immigrants, creating growth and prosperity through hard work and perseverance.
Johannes Lang is a researcher at Schmidt Futures and a John F. Kennedy Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School. Zuzana Cepla is a manager at Labor Mobility Partnerships, where she analyzes labor mobility programs.