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Pandemic Barriers Inhibit Return to Low-Wage Jobs

Immigration Policy Brief #131 | By: Kathryn Baron | November 30, 2021

Header photo taken from: Brookings Institution

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Photo taken from: Getty Images

Policy Summary

The US needs roughly 10 million people to work low-wage and high-skilled workers to comfortably sustain the economy. Only 8.4 million Americans are actively seeking work in this stage of the pandemic; workers are resigning in record numbers and the number of Americans returning to low-wage industries are persistently low. On average, the US accepts roughly 1 million immigrants and 75% of those immigrants actively contribute to the American labor force. In 2020, the US only admit 263,000 immigrants.

The industries facing the most severe labor shortages include construction, transportation and warehousing, and accommodation and hospitality. Immigrants make up at least 20% of the workforces in each of the aforementioned industries. The US Labor Department’s monthly report noted the American labor force dropped by 5.5 million below pre-pandemic levels within the past year.

Policy Analysis

The OECD most recently estimated the number of migrant workers arriving at wealthy nations has fallen by almost 4%, the largest plunge since 2003. Currently, the only existing visa programs in the US designed to welcome low-wage workers is the H-2 program, which is usually capped at 66,000 per annum (excluding agricultural workers). The Department of Homeland Security can increase the cap up to 64,000 additional visas without Congress’s intervention. The Biden Administration opted to add an additional 22,000 visas earlier this year, and could potentially add more moving forward.

Photo taken from: Cato Institute

The lack of migrant workers is drastically affecting the US economy and has potential to alter trade relations as a result of reduced GDP, lower levels of remittances, and concerning levels of unemployment.

Engagement Resources​

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  • The National Immigration Law Center: an organization that exclusively dedicates itself to defending and furthering the rights of low-income immigrants and strives to educate decision makers on the impacts and effects of their policies on this overlooked part of the population.
  • The ACLU: a non-profit with a longstanding commitment to preserving and protecting the individual rights and liberties of the Constitution and US laws guaranteed to all its citizens.
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