Why Biden and Democrats should double down on pro-immigration policy
Republican Attorneys General have been relentless in trying to block President Biden from allowing immigrants to remain in the U.S. — but the country needs more immigrants to ease its labor shortage, slow wage inflation, increase economic growth, and create more jobs.
Even if it passed, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act currently stuck the Senate wouldn’t admit more working-age immigrants. The Biden administration should adopt new policies that do. Not only would it be good for the economy, it could also engender voter support and help preserve Democratic majorities in Congress.
Biden’s current “fair and humane” approach to immigration is not resonating with voters. Democrats are being excoriated by Republicans for being too progressive and by their own party for not being progressive enough.
Voter opposition to Biden’s plan to lift Title 42, which empowers the administration to block immigrants from entering the U.S. to prevent the spread of disease, reflects strong voter resistance to admitting more immigrants.
Hostile immigration policies and false rhetoric during the Trump administration effectively stifled immigration, which had already been falling since 1995. In 2019, even before the pandemic hit, aggressive enforcement brought immigration from Mexico to a halt. The result was zero growth in working-age immigrants, down from an average of 660,000 in the preceding years.
The Biden administration needs to debunk baseless denigration of immigrants to get voter support for a more pro-immigration policy. In March of 2020, Trump stopped hundreds of thousands of migrants from entering from Mexico by falsely claiming that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” Trump’s allegation that immigrants are “criminals” was a lie. In fact, the incidence of crime among immigrants is substantially below that of native-born Americans.
And — contrary to another Trump claim — immigrants don’t steal American jobs. In fact, they create more jobs than they take.
The Trump administration took over 400 executive actions to reduce immigration. Those actions, combined with his denigration of immigrants, resulted in the lowest inflow of immigrants from Mexico (around 200,000) on record since 1960. In the previous decade, about 1 million immigrants a year came to the U.S. Under Trump’s presidency, that number dropped to around 250,000. By the end of 2021, the net immigration to the U.S. hit its lowest level in decades.
Immigrants respond more aggressively to labor demand than low-skilled native-born Americans, so immigration helps ease labor shortages. Studies show that U.S. cities with higher populations of Mexican-born immigrants suffered 50 percent smaller labor shocks than other metro areas. Low immigration engineered by Trump prevented immigrants from easing the current labor shortage.
Labor shortages worsened when the economy began to recover from the pandemic in 2021. As the number of jobs rose, employers found it harder to fill them due to the scarcity of immigrants. Sectors that employ the most foreign workers had significantly higher rates of job vacancies in 2021.
Despite rising wages, the number of unfilled jobs in the U.S. remains high. Overall, employers advertised 11.4 million jobs at the end of April, 2022, or nearly two job openings for every unemployed person — the second highest level in 20 years.
But by the end of 2021, there were about 2 million fewer working-age immigrants in the U.S. to fill those openings. About a million of them would have been college-educated and could have taken high-skilled jobs that stimulate innovation, boost productivity and grow the economy. High-skilled jobs also have a multiplier effect, generating up to 2.5 additional jobs in their local economies for each employed high-skilled worker. Immigrants are also three times more likely than U.S-born workers to start their own businesses. Two million fewer immigrants translates into fewer new businesses and more than 200,000 fewer jobs.
In recent decades, immigrants have been responsible for most of the U.S. population growth, which is necessary to keep Medicare and Social Security solvent.
Cutting immigration has tangible health consequences for seniors. Immigrants supply a large share of the growing demand for healthcare workers for the elderly. One in five nurses and one in four health aides is an immigrant. Think of where we would have been without them when COVID 19 overran our hospitals. Recent research shows that a 10 percent increase in the foreign-born labor force reduces the number of falls among nursing home residents by 35 percent.
Immigrants pay their fair share of taxes, and then some. They send more money to the government than they receive in benefits and pay about 15.4 percent of total government tax revenues, while they represent only 14.8 percent of all U.S. households.
Democrats have lost the messaging wars to Republicans on nearly every issue. But given the many benefits of accepting more immigrants, one still wonders why they’re losing the messaging war on immigration.
Framing a compelling immigration policy and clear and convincing messaging about its benefits could enable Democrats to seize the issue from Republicans, and convince voters that more immigration, not less, is in their best interest.
Neil Baron advised the Securities and Exchange Commission and congressional staff on rating agency reform. He represented Standard & Poor’s from 1968 to 1989 and was vice chairman and general counsel of Fitch Ratings from 1989 to 1998. He also served on the board of Assured Guaranty for a decade.
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