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Opinion Democrats are missing the bigger immigration issue

A help wanted sign in Elgin, Ill., on March 19. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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Democrats are terrified that a coming border surge might tank their midterm chances.

But they have largely ignored a much more serious immigration-related political risk. The problem in the months ahead isn’t that the United States will allow in too many immigrants; it’s that we’ll admit too few, particularly the kinds of workers who can fill critical labor-market shortages.

The Biden administration recently announced it would soon end Title 42, a Trump-era border-control policy. Citing the public health emergency when it invoked the policy in March 2020, the Trump team used the pandemic as a pretext to expel all arriving migrants without first allowing them to apply for asylum, as they have a legal right to do. Public health experts and immigration advocates — and many elected Democrats — have long condemned the policy, which has been used to carry out more than 1.7 million migrant expulsions.

President Biden’s own appointees have called the policy illegal and inhumane, with multiple high-level officials blasting it when they resigned. But Biden delayed reversing Title 42, fearing bad optics and attacks from Fox News. (Which arguably was going to attack him as an “open borders” president regardless.)

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As expected, right-wingers are now catastrophizing about the looming “Armageddon” that will follow Title 42′s unwinding.

As a result, some worried Democrats are demanding that Biden keep this (likely illegal) policy in place. They have been so fixated on bad-faith right-wing attacks that they have missed the bigger, and much more serious, immigration-related liability: the millions of immigrants whose absence from the U.S. workforce is putting upward pressure on inflation.

Which Democrats are being blamed for, and which voters appear to care much more about.

The United States is experiencing inflationary levels not seen in four decades. Americans are unhappy, and they are more than five times as likely to cite “inflation,” “cost of living” or the economy in general than immigration as the nation’s biggest problem. These economic concerns are, however, rooted at least partly in immigration policy.

Worker shortages are pervasive, with vacancies hovering around record highs. The resulting disruptions to supply chains and normal business operations have raised costs for companies and consumers. Some of thesemissingworkers retired; some dropped out of the labor force because of care issues or illness. But a huge chunk were foreign-born workers who either never arrived in the United States in recent years or who were already here but have been forced out of their jobs because of government incompetence.

There are about 1.8 million fewer working-age immigrants in the United States today than would be the case if pre-2020 immigration trends had continued unchanged, economic researchers Giovanni Peri and Reem Zaiour estimate. Unsurprisingly, they also find that industries that had a higher percentage of foreign workers in 2019 — such as hospitality and food services — tend to have higher rates of unfilled jobs now.

These immigrants, legal and otherwise, are “missing” because of a combination of Trump policies, covid-19 (which the Trump administration cited to justify imposing even more immigration restrictions) and Biden’s foot-dragging.

Although Biden pledged more humane and efficient immigration policies when he ran for president, he has been slow to reverse many of President Donald Trump’s onerous paperwork requirements and other policies designed to reduce legal immigration. Biden’s sluggishness owes partly to the magnitude of the challenge of rebuilding the U.S. immigration infrastructure — and partly to that deep Democratic fear of how Fox News et al. might portray any efforts to help immigrants.

As a result, last year, the United States experienced the lowest levels of new international migration in decades, census data shows.

There remains huge demand among foreign-born workers to contribute to the U.S. economy. But backlogs for processing immigration and work-permit applications have grown under Biden. Many foreign-born workers already here, who already had jobs, have lost their legal authorization to continue working because of how slowly their work-permit renewals are being processed.

And so, the many businesses that rely on these workers are losing critical staff, making inflation worse.

Immigration officials have declined to disclose how many workers are being forced out of their jobs as a result of these bureaucratic delays. But available data on processing times suggests that the number of workers losing their jobs is enormous — and might represent the majority of certain categories of immigrants applying for work-permit renewals, such as asylum seekers.

The Biden administration recently announced that it would accelerate processing of work permits and other immigration applications. Officials say they are making “progress toward” a forthcoming rule to temporarily extend existing work permits. But the measures taken so far have been too little, too late.

These issues are complicated, and not widely followed. A border surge is infinitely more telegenic and attack-ad-friendly than backlogged paperwork. But the missing immigrant workforce is what more directly affects voters’ pocketbooks — and, by extension, Democrats’ political fortunes.

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