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Column: Biden must lead on immigration to overcome labor crisis

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An immigration activist participates in a rally near the White House on Oct. 7, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The group demonstrated for immigration reform and urged President Joe Biden to authorize a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS)

At a recent news conference, when pressed about America’s labor shortage, President Joe Biden dismissed criticism of his economic policies as “malarkey” and suggested our nation’s labor shortage is merely a sign of our booming economy. To many, the causes of the labor shortage are either low wages from corporations or generous unemployment benefits that allegedly discourage people from working.

Resolve one or the other, the thinking goes, and everyone will go back to work, right? Wrong.

Even with the end of the government paying extended unemployment benefits and corporations rapidly raising wages at the fastest rate in 20 years, the labor shortage continues unabated. The only answer is bold, expansive and daily leadership akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s and involves the strongest arrow in the president’s quiver: legal immigration. Without such action, our country will forever be dealing with supply chain shortages, slower service and meager economic growth.

At the heart of our labor crisis is a confluence of events over the past five years. In 2018, there were more than 52 million adults age 65 or older, and by 2060 that number will grow to 95 million. While some will work longer, the vast majority will retire. This trend, though bad, was manageable, but baby boomers began retiring at the same time of the most anti-immigrant administration in history and a once-in-a-century pandemic. These events served as an accelerant.

The Trump administration, via its over 400 changes, decreased immigration to the United States by close to 50%. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has killed some 835,000 Americans, many of them working age, and it also has forced millions of baby boomers into early retirement. All the while, the birthrate in the United States has fallen to its lowest rate ever.

If Biden wants a template for how to lead on immigration, ironically his predecessor, Donald Trump, seems to offer the best. For all of Trump’s failings, he and his people understood the levers of immigration better than any administration before. Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon and Trump worked hourly and aggressively on a daily basis to keep legal immigrants out. The breadth and scope of our current labor crisis will require Biden to have the same energy in strengthening the legal immigration system. Biden will have to lead directly on this crisis, and he can start by looking at his own administration.

Right now, there are nearly 1.5 million pending worker permits for immigrants who are already in America. The number of pending worker permit cases is growing despite the fact that Congress allocated millions to U.S. immigration officials during the pandemic specifically to avoid this issue. That represents more than a million immigrants already here who want to work, but they either cannot or are under threat of not being able to work due to government bureaucracy.

Team Biden needs to allocate whatever resources are necessary to get that backlog to zero. We need to get these legal immigrants who are here and ready to work off the sidelines and into U.S. businesses.

Second, Biden has recently increased the number of temporary workers permitted to enter the country by 20,000, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions we need to sustain even meager economic growth, let alone the kind of growth we as a nation are accustomed to. Congress provides the president with the power to increase it by much more, and he should take advantage of that and do so immediately.

A dramatic increase in visa numbers alone will not be sufficient, and Biden should directly engage his team to come up with efficient but secure solutions to more quickly adjudicate the millions of pending and backlogged visas from foreign nationals here and abroad. Our current visa adjudication system is antiquated and built for the last century. The president himself needs to lean on his government to come up with bold and expansive ideas such as eliminating paper-only filing systems, conducting any required in-person interviews remotely or waiving them outright for low-risk travelers given the emergency economic circumstances we face. If revenues are an issue, he can even seek increasing administrative fees for expediting visa processing.

Biden must realize that on immigration, waiting for Congress to do what it hasn’t done in 20 years of attempts simply will not be enough for U.S. employers, nor will it save our country from the prospect of inflation, stagnated growth and decline.

We need look no further than our competitor nations to see the cost of inaction. Japan’s economic miracle turned into a lost decade, in part, because of its restrictive immigration policies, and China is under threat of growing old before it grows rich due to its shrinking workforce and rapidly aging population.

For America to avoid a lost century, the president must act on legal immigration and act now.

Christopher Richardson is an immigration attorney and former U.S. diplomat.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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