Immigrant workers rebounded past U.S.-born workforce after pandemic, study shows

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There is no shortage of immigrant workers in the U.S. economy, according to a new study released Wednesday that challenges a growing chorus of voices arguing the country needs more foreign labor to keep the economy humming.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data, the Center for Immigration Studies calculated there were 29.6 million foreign-born workers — both legal and illegal immigrants — as of November. That’s up from 27.7 million workers in 2019.

But among native-born workers, the workforce rate is down 2.1 million compared with three years ago, said Steven A. Camarota, chief author of the study and director of research at the center, which advocates for stricter immigration policies.

“If you think that there are missing workers, then it’s the native-born we’re missing,” Mr. Camarota said. “The immigrant labor force participation rate is above what it was in 2019.”

The study comes amid a massive push to open the doors to more newcomers.

From Capitol Hill to the pages of national newspapers to the top of the Federal Reserve, policy-makers say a shortage of foreigners is holding back the U.S. economy.

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The Washington Post blamed the “anti-immigrant” policies of former President Donald Trump and the pandemic for slashing new immigration by half from 2019 to 2021. The New York Times said a “sharp slowdown” in immigration left the U.S. short 3.2 million immigrant workers, relative to the trend line before 2017.

In a speech late last month, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said labor imbalances are fueling the current painful rise in inflation. He said part of that problem is one million “missing workers” due to slower immigration during the pandemic.

Mr. Powell said temporary guest workers have rebounded from pandemic depths, but are still below 2019 rates, while new permanent residents, or green-card holders, are “well below” levels of the last decade. And he said, despite the rise in illegal immigration at the border, the overall number of illegal immigrants may not have increased.

Mr. Camarota said Mr. Powell’s data may have been true at one point, but now it is out of date.

Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the monthly survey that the Labor Department uses to calculate employment rates, he found there was a pandemic dip, with working immigrants dropping from 27.7 million in November 2019 to 25.6 million a year later.

But in the ensuing two years, the economy has added back 4 million immigrants to the workforce.

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That’s about in line with the trend line dating back to 2010, and significantly above the trend line if it were drawn back to 2000.

It’s also 1.9 million more than there were in 2019.

One place where there is a dearth compared with 2019 rates is among U.S.-born workers.

Before the pandemic, 74.1% of native-born people of working age — between 18 and 64 — were in the labor force. It slipped during 2020 but has recovered, though at 73.5% it remains below the 2019 level.

That works out to 44.9 million U.S.-born working-age Americans not in the labor force.

Mr. Camarota said they may be out for many valid reasons, including disabilities or taking care of children or older relatives. Some are also enticed out of the workforce by economics, figuring the life they can live on government assistance is better than the marginal tradeoff of the wages they could earn in a job.

Mr. Camarota said there are costs to lower workforce participation, including higher rates of substance abuse, crime and obesity.

“We face a stark choice as a country: either we figure out how to get more people back in the labor force who are working age, or we accept all the social problems and pathologies that come with low labor force participation and bring in more immigrants,” he said.

The notion of more immigrant workers tracks with other Center for Immigration Studies research showing overall immigration has soared under President Biden.

Immigrants are now 14.74% of the total population, which nearly matches the all-time high of 14.77% set in 1890.

Among those immigrants, 6.2% came since 2020, and roughly a third came since 2010. Another 27% arrived in the first decade of this century, according to Mr. Camarota’s figures.

He said of those who arrived since the start of the Biden administration, roughly 60% came illegally.

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