The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. needs more workers. Too bad our legal immigration is a mess.

A composite photo shows nine "help wanted" signs on stores in Bethesda in March 2022. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

There might as well be a giant “Help Wanted!” sign over the United States. The economy has bounced back swiftly from the pandemic lows — aided by more than $5 trillion in government aid — and companies are frantically trying to hire enough workers to keep up with the surge in demand for everything from waffle irons to cars. The nation has more than 11 million job openings and 6 million unemployed.

This imbalance is giving workers and job seekers tremendous power. Pay is rising at the fastest pace in years, workers are quitting jobs and finding new ones at record levels, hourly employees at companies such as Starbucks and Amazon are starting unions, and companies are offering flexibility and benefits that would have been almost unthinkable pre-pandemic. These are welcome trends.

But it’s also the case that the U.S. economy is still operating with significantly fewer workers than before the pandemic. The labor force participation rate, a measure of how many civilians 16 and older are working or looking for work, is at 62.4 percent — down a full percentage point from before the pandemic. Much of this decline can be explained by two factors: a surge in Americans retiring and a massive drop in legal immigration under President Donald Trump that has yet to turn around.

President Biden insists he is doing everything he can to lower inflation and keep the economy strong. But he has yet to take an obvious — and much-needed — step to fix the legal immigration system.

There are 9.5 million people waiting for their legal immigration paperwork to be processed by the U.S. government. These include people seeking work permits, asylum, green cards and citizenship. It’s an unprecedented backlog. Some people trying to renew temporary work permits are waiting so long that they are losing their right to work legally, meaning they lose their jobs and income. In all, people waiting for employment authorization or reauthorization make up about 1.6 million of the backlogged applications. They are ready and able to work, yet government bureaucracy is in the way. This is a major loss for the U.S. economy.

It’s obvious how to fix this. As Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute put it, “More funding and more staffing is the clear way to address all of these backlogs.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — part of the Homeland Security Department — finally announced some steps last week to help clear the backlog. They include allowing more immigrants to pay up to $2,500 for faster action, and aiming to limit processing to no more than six months. USCIS also implied it would automatically extend work authorizations from 180 days to a much longer period for applicants who had a work visa and are waiting for a renewal. This extension can’t come soon enough.

Companies are desperate for workers. Millions of legal immigrants want to work in the United States. This shouldn’t be so hard to fix.