Posted on December 20, 2022

Trump, COVID Slowed Down Immigration. Now Employers Can’t Find Workers.

Abha Bhattarai and Lauren Kaori Gurley, Washington Post, December 15, 2022


A shortfall of immigrants is worsening widespread labor shortages and hobbling the U.S. economy at a time when more than 10 million jobs remain unfilled, particularly in low-paying and physically demanding industries such as hospitality, agriculture, construction and health care.

While the slowdown in legal immigration began well before the pandemic, the covid-19 crisis intensified the process as the Trump administration effectively halted the flow of foreign-born workers into the United States. Although immigration has rebounded somewhat since then, particularly in the last six months, major shortages remain, rippling through the economy at a time when the labor force is also missing workers from early retirements, ongoing health problems and caregiving challenges. Labor force shortages are also contributing to higher prices for some goods and services, as companies raise wages to compete for a smaller pool of workers and to keep existing staff.

The crisis had prompted senators on both sides of the aisle to try to strike a deal that allowed more legal immigration in the weeks before Republicans take control of the House. But those proposals never got off the ground, making an immigration overhaul far less politically feasible.

“Immigration is something almost everyone agrees needs to be fixed, but it’s become a political wedge issue,” said Tara Watson, an economics professor at Williams College and fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There have been huge bureaucratic delays since the Trump administration. And of course covid really put a wrench in the gears. But this is a long-term structural problem that has not been addressed.”

Economists say it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many foreign-born workers are missing from the labor force, particularly when it comes to undocumented immigrants. By one estimate, the United States is shy of about 1.7 million legal immigrants based on pre-pandemic migration trends, according to Giovanni Peri, director of the Global Migration Center at the University of California at Davis.

Even though immigration rates have picked up in recent months, Peri says it could be another four years before the country makes up for current shortfalls. Even then, it won’t be enough to catch up to the rapidly aging workforce that is projected to leave millions more positions unfilled.

Economists estimate that the lack of immigration is responsible for close to half of the workers missing from the labor force, a deficit Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell recently estimated to be about 3.5 million workers.


Visas for college students and highly skilled science and tech workers have bounced back relatively quickly, Peri said. But immigration rates for people without a college education have been slower to make up for lost ground.


The drop-off in foreign workers began soon after Donald Trump took office, largely on an anti-immigrant platform. Although his administration didn’t make legislative changes, it slowed down visa processing through “a culture of extreme vetting and extreme delays” that was enough to deter immigration in all forms, especially among those without college educations, Peri said.

The number of new immigrants entering the country legally each year, which peaked in 2016, fell by 6 percent in 2017 and another 9 percent the following year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But the pandemic dealt the biggest blow: New arrivals plunged 50 percent between 2019 and 2021.

“Covid caused two years of lost immigration,” Peri said. “Embassies and consulates that release visas were mostly shut down. The processing of green cards in the U.S. was mostly shut down. Even international travel was mostly gone.”

Many of those situations have since improved, but business owners say it hasn’t been enough to make up for years of lost workers.


Beyond creating wider avenues for immigrants to enter the country, business owners, economists and policymakers say there also needs to be a focus on retaining foreign-born workers already in the United States. That includes “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as young children; recently laid-off tech workers on H1-B visas who may have to leave the country if they don’t find new work within 60 days; and the adult children of highly educated legal immigrants awaiting permanent residency.

U.S. lawmakers are not expected to address these issues before Congress breaks for the holidays, as all their attention is focused on funding the government. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) had discussed creating a pathway to citizenship for dreamers in exchange for $25 billion to strengthen border security. That proposal could be pushed into the new year, with even slimmer chances of succeeding.


Immigration policy remains a divisive topic among Republicans, as anti-immigration sentiment is a tenet of the far-right wing of the party and played well with Trump’s base in 2016. Some Republicans say new paths to legal immigration should not be implemented until the border is secured enough that undocumented migrants cannot make it into the country. With Republicans taking control of the House in January, refusal from some conservative members to pass any reforms could prevent progress on legislation.


Roughly 100 millions Americans are not in the labor force — meaning they don’t have a job or aren’t looking for one — according to government data, although it is unclear how many of those people are American-born.