A now hiring sign outside a business in 1200 Haddonfield-Berlin Road, Voorhees Township, NJ (image: Unsplash)
A now hiring sign outside a business in 1200 Haddonfield-Berlin Road, Voorhees Township, NJ (image: Unsplash)

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When Julie Collins at the Colleges of Health Sciences at Rush University tried to hire a faculty member from Canada, she ran into the H1B immigration minefield.

U.S. immigration limits H1Bs to 140,000 annually. Collins filed her faculty member’s original H1B paperwork and renewals for another three years. She was told his H1B could not be renewed anymore after 6 years.  He would need a green card.

Indians Have A Long Wait For Green Cards

So Collins began the green card process. She was told it would take eight to 10 years because her faculty member’s country of origin was India. 

This is no surprise to Indians who face an uphill battle against the H1B system and green card process which limits residency approvals based on country of origin.

It’s been bad news for green card applicants from India for a while. Currently over a million people from the country are stuck in a green card backlog. Indian-employer-sponsored applicants face an eight-decade wait period that is projected to outlast the lifetimes of almost 200,000 applicants. Only half of the Indian-origin applicants are expected to receive an actual green card.

When Collins looked into an E1B visa for her faculty member, her legal team said she had a 20 to 30% chance of being able to hire him and keep him through that visa process. 

Inflexible immigration processes like these mean that the U.S. is swiftly losing access to the global talent it needs to plug thousands of vacant jobs.

The Immigration Roadblocks

The U.S. immigration system is mired in a backlog of greencards and legal visas. Congress has not moved forward to ease restrictions for immigrants like dreamers or STEM PhDs. Even the asylum system seems paralyzed. For U.S employers looking to fill thousands of vacant positions, hiring qualified foreign-born individuals becomes a nightmare.

“The approval process needs to be more timely and effective,” said Collins at an Aug 26 Ethnic Media Services briefing on immigration roadblocks and worker shortages. “The U.S. needs to look at at creative solutions to fill the positions.”

The obvious solution is that U.S. needs more immigrants – at least 2 million more – to take the jobs that Americans cannot fill. Instead, public discussion tends to focus on the estimated 2 million border crossings for the fiscal year, which is not the same as 2 million potential workers, said Giovanni Perry,  Professor of Economics at the University of California Davis.

Immigration Stalemates

Economists are alarmed by the shortage of workers in every industry. The pool of immigrants who would normally fill these job openings have disappeared. As a result, about 10 to 15% of job openings that typically employ immigrant for foreign born workers are still vacant, say experts.

They are demanding reform of the restrictive immigration system to make it more flexible and adaptable to new economic and social conditions. Otherwise warns the Cato Institute, “small problems can build into national crises.”

What’s at stake with immigration policy stalemates is damage to economic recovery and the long term economic health of the US.

The Growing Worker Shortage

Between 2019 to 2022, job vacancies rose from 6 million to 10 million said Perry, who also is founder and director of the UC Davis Global Migration Center. “These are big numbers.”

In May 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documented over 11.2 million job openings but worker shortfall in almost every industry.

In the construction industry for example, the Brookings Institution reported a shortage of nearly 50,000 workers for an estimated 434,000 job openings. Retail trade needed 420,000 people for at least 1.14 million job openings; while the accommodation, food services and nursing industries needed  565,000 to fill 1.4 million job openings. From meatpacking to STEM professionals, the U.S. is unable to keep pace with the job-creating post pandemic economy and long term economic growth.

The Big Retirement

Jobs are going vacant for a number of reasons. The aging U.S. workforce is unable to meet  the demands of a growing post pandemic economy. During Covid, said Perry, Americans in their 50s and 60s retired early. They are unlikely to come back. 

“We have this massive Baby Boomer generation that will continue to retire in the next 10 years.”

The U.S. labor force will continue to shrink as people decide to change jobs or take up opportunities to work from home after COVID. The combination of retirement, resignation and job changes plus immigration decline, has generated a huge increase in the number of job vacancies, said Perry.

Zero Net Immigration

“Since middle 2019 until the end of 2021, there has been essentially zero net immigration in the U.S.,” said Perry. That’s hurting the economy.

Intensified visa restrictions and slow visa processes initially reduced the number of entries. When COVID hit, that dropped to zero.

If instead, the U.S. had continued on the trajectory of immigrant inflow, as of July 2022, the country would have had nearly 1.7 million more immigrants.

Perry said that number included 900,000 college educated immigrants who could have filled STEM sector jobs. By keeping them out, the U.S. lost access to doctors, computer scientists, biomedical engineers, and bio experts. Immigration policy also denied entry to 800,000 non-college educated immigrants who could have filled jobs in the food hospitality, restaurant, and personnel services industries (elderly care, child care, disabled care).

Between 2020 – 2021, the U.S. also missed out on 400,000 foreign college students which meant fewer (100-150 thousand) workers per year of college graduates in the next three to four years.

Worker Shortages Fuel Inflation

The significant decline in immigrants during a worker shortage has consequences for the U.S. economy, warned Perry.

Companies have a hard time in hiring people, so they raise wages to attract workers. Labor shortage and higher wages means that prices go up. In a restaurant for example, these labor costs and labor shortages translate into higher prices and fewer customers served. 

The triple threat of worker shortages, job bottlenecks and inflation impacts the growth of companies, said Perry. A hospital that cannot admit more patients because of worker shortage, cannot expand its facility. It will then need fewer workers. The result said Perry, is “ higher prices, lower growth and reduction in opportunity for other jobs.”

The Great Nursing Shortage

Julie Collins, Program Director of the Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences at Rush University, witnessed the burnout of nurses covering per diem shifts on COVID floors, that created nursing shortage in hospitals.

“As COVID began slowing down, nurses sought early retirement, some of them changed professions from being burnt out, and some even died of COVID. So this left us with fewer nurses to fill the open positions in our units.”

Hospitals are now short staffed. Nurses are “being asked to pick up extra shifts; they have to care for more patients than is safe,” said Collins, thereby increasing their chances of creating errors and causing emotional distress.

With all the open positions, nurses are moving from job to job for the best pay or for the term of  sign on bonuses. They are seeking a better work life balance to avoid burnout.

“The great nursing shortage is here, said Collins. “There’s roughly 194,000 open positions for nurses in the United States right now. That’s why we need to look for qualified immigrant nurses to fill these open positions,” she urged. 

“We are hiring” banner (Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash)

What Can We Do? 

During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, immigrant nurses played a vital role in alleviating nurse shortages. The same tactic could be employed now in nursing and another healthcare professions, said Collins. 

U.S. hospitals could attract nurses with higher wages, supplement moving costs and visa fees, offer housing assistance and a relocation advisor. If a hospital fast tracks a system to bring in nurses, “they wouldn’t have problems filling their open positions,” said Collins. “So I just see this having such potential to solve such a huge issue in the United States right now.”

Perry too, urged the acceleration of immigration processes to clear visa and green card backlogs.

New Immigration Policies Could Help

New immigration policies enacted through legislative action could release more visas driven by economic need, added Perry. These visas would significantly differ from existing visas for temporary seasonal workers (H2), agricultural workers, and high skilled visa worker visas (H1B) which impose constraining limits. A reformed visa framework could include visa accommodations for workers required in the hospitality, construction, health care, or elderly care industry.

Collins suggested elevating the number of H1Bs until the worker shortages and the great resignation slow down. Bills introduced by the House of Representatives could support immigration and health care. Benefits would include a grant program to cover licensing certification, training and education class, allowing immigrants with foreign licenses to work under supervision and providing current immigrants with foreign licensure and training, the assistance they need to work towards their U.S. licensure. 

Rethinking Immigration Reform

Rethinking immigration reform within this framework, said Perry, would positively impact jobs, growth, and the economy. The U.S. is losing highly skilled workers to other countries like the UK, Canada and Australia.

“Their contribution to innovation to science to teaching to technology is in part lost. And this is a large part of the growth of the economic growth of the U.S.” 

Photo by Ernie Journeys on Unsplash

Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at DesiCollective. At India Currents, she covers immigration policy and reform, civil rights, the pandemic, and climate...