As 2022 barrels forward and COVID seeming to take a temporary backseat to other pressing issues, economic anxiety has risen to the forefront of concerns for the nation’s citizens. Inflation has risen to a high point not seen since the late 1970s and grocery, gas and durable goods alike have seen prices higher than most people can remember. The Biden Administration has rightfully pointed to ongoing supply chain woes and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as drivers of these higher costs, but inflation was already rising in early 2021. Despite a slight cooling in an otherwise booming housing market and unemployment at record lows, the high price of goods has dampened Americans’ outlook for the coming months.
While year-to-year inflation is hardly responsive to short-term gimmicks like a gas tax holiday, a significant problem being seen throughout the economy is the shortage of labor. While the disappearance of available labor from the roaring pre-COVID economy is mystifying, the pandemic essentially expedited a phenomenon that most of us knew was coming – the retirement of the Baby Boomers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, nearly 25% of the workforce was between the ages of 55 – 64, with another 7% being 65 years or older. Although statistical evidence is still scarce, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the pandemic has driven many of these workers from the post-COVID workforce. This has left a significant hole in the labor market, which simply has not been adequately filed by younger workers entering the workforce.
How do we fix this problem? In a word: immigration. The United States continues to remain the destination of choice for both highly skilled and unskilled labor worldwide. The mass migration that currently impacts the United States’ southern border evidences the huge magnet the country’s economy has on those with lesser means and while some migrants come to the US for less than noble reasons, overwhelmingly most are simply seeking a better life for their children and themselves. More importantly, the ability to help reduce the labor shortage can partially be done without the need of assistance of a divided Congress. The following are a few steps that the Biden Administration can take without Congressional approval to help increase the number of available foreign workers:
- Get US Consulates functional again. The concerns about new COVID variants is real and should be taken seriously, but the continued closure of consulates abroad borders on absurdity. Despite commanding a multi-billion dollar budget, the US Department of State continues to understaff visa offices, leading to visa delays that seem endless. The Biden Administration can easily surge resources to visa offices to help clear the backlog, but increasing capacity or in some cases, simply creating interview waiver options. Individuals that clearly meet the requirements for visa issuance should not be required to wait months to get an interview. Allowing for expedited processing would reduce delays and get badly needed workers to US shores faster.
- Grant certain non-immigrant dependents employment authorization, specifically H-4 dependents. H-1B visa holders, by definition, must occupy a “specialty occupation” or one that traditionally requires a Bachelors degree. Many H-1B visa holders are married to H-4 spouses and have H-4 children. H-4 dependents are ordinarily not permitted employment authorization with the only exemption for H-4 spouses that are currently waiting for a current priority date in order to be able to seek permanent residency status. As many H-1B visa holders are married to spouses that share their advanced educational experience, the United States currently has tens of thousands of skilled and capable workers sitting at their homes and without a way of using their skills in an economy that needs the help. Similarly, H-4 children cannot accept jobs like their youthful counterparts (i.e. wait staff or lifeguards), which again starves the economy of needed new labor. Unleash H-4 spouses and dependent children into the economy, as they are able-bodied and often highly skilled workers whose potential is currently untapped.
- Grant employment authorization locally. Currently individuals applying for employment authorization must submit their applications to a national service center that often takes months to respond. Inquiries often go unheeded, while workers waste days waiting for government action. Since local offices are flexible and nimble, allowing locales to accept and adjudicate application may help to drive efficiency and increase output. While waiting for the actual card to be delivered, local USCIS offices could also grant applicants a temporary stamp approving their authority to work, which can then be used to immediately obtain employment. By reducing wait times from months to weeks, the number of available workers would increase dramatically.
- Stop the overly restrictive adjudication of work visas. Ask any practitioner about the difficulty of getting an L-1 or E-2 visa approved and you will likely receive countless stories on the challenges of understanding USCIS’ logic in visa adjudications. Words are not given their standard meaning and decision-making seems arbitrary. USCIS does not operate in a vacuum and should realize that employers are trying unable to find labor, thus necessitating the import of foreign workers. Easing this restrictiveness, coupled with boosting consular efficiency (see above), should provide a slight reprieve from this ongoing worker shortage, particularly in areas of high expertise.
Biden Administration officials often point to Congressional inaction as the driving reason behind our country’s dysfunctional immigration system, which is largely true; however, the Administration can do much more through regulatory and policy changes to boost the number of available workers without stepping into more contentious policy debates such as border and enforcement policies. By simply using the tools that it already has at its disposal, the Administration can help to dent the current labor shortage and bring balance and some normalcy back into our current economic outlook.
Rishi Oza is a Partner at Brown Immigration Law, a national immigration law firm with offices in North Carolina, Ohio and Florida. He leads the firm’s North Carolina office and works primarily in the field of employment and family-based immigration.