Joe Biden’s latest move to roll back Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies has enraged Republican lawmakers and exposed Democratic divisions on Capitol Hill, even as business groups press for more liberal rules to help combat labor shortages.
Last Friday, the Biden administration fully rescinded the so-called Title 42 policy imposed under Trump that allowed US authorities to turn back anyone crossing the southern border to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In response, Republicans threatened to block coronavirus funding legislation, while Democrats holding vulnerable Senate seats – including Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada – have criticized the removal of restrictions.
The political backlash against the president’s move to ease restrictions threatens to jeopardize support from voters concerned about excessive immigration ahead of the midterm elections in November, where the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in Congress hangs in the balance.
Yet as the US grapples with a tight labor market coupled with rampant inflation, business leaders argue that the country cannot afford to continue blocking the entry of both highly skilled and blue-collar workers.
“The business community feels strongly that we need to fix the system,” said Dane Linn, vice president of immigration policy at the Business Roundtable, a large corporate lobbying organization. “We can not fill all the jobs by simply growing the talent we have here in the US. We need to grow that talent, but we also need to attract[workers]. . . from around the world. ”
Late last year, the US Census Bureau said international immigration into the US was at its lowest in decades. Net international migration had added 247,000 people to the population between 2020 and 2021, the bureau said, compared to a high of more than 1m between 2015 and 2016, and lower than the net inflow of 477,000 people added between 2019 and 2020.
Biden has periodically come under four for what his critics argue are over-liberal policies concerning the US border with Mexico. Title 42 has already been suspended for unaccompanied childrenbut a subsequent surge in the number crossing left the White House scrambling to find adequate holding facilities.
“The border kind of hijacks all of the oxygen around the immigration debate,” said Jennifer Minear, an immigration lawyer at McCandlish Holton. “Anytime anyone says anything that would suggest a more reasonable system of immigration. . . the other side can easily point and say, ‘Oh, you’re an open-borders Democrat, you believe in letting anybody come into the country.’ ”
In March 2020, the US closed its land borders between Mexico and Canada to stop the spread of coronavirus. They remained blocked until last November.
Yet immigration into the country was already in decline before the onset of the pandemic. The number of visas issued by the state department’s overseas posts fell 25 per cent between 2016 and 2019. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of visas issued fell by more than 60 per cent.
Minear said an “invisible wall of policy changes” implemented by Trump that were intended to deny and delay visa applications, combined with anti-immigrant rhetoric, had probably powered the decline.
Business groups have been pushing for more liberal terms for high-skilled visas, arguing that more immigration into the US would help plug job openings amid widespread labor shortages.
The US Chamber of Commerce estimated last month that the US had 4.75m more open jobs than there were people looking for work, and argued that lower legal immigration was one reason.
Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, a former counsel for U.S. immigration authorities and director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Aila was hearing from employers who could not secure workers.
“That impacts supply chains and it impacts inflation,” said Dalal-Dheini. “I’m hoping Congress will recognize that and act on it, although ahead of the midterms I do not know if anyone is willing to do anything on immigration because it’s so politically divisive as an issue.”
Immigration lawyers have expressed frustration that, while Biden has undone some of Trump’s visa restrictions, his administration still plans to potentially make some working permits more difficult to obtain.
While Biden allowed Trump’s ban on new issues of green cards and some worker visas to expire, his administration still intends to bring in rules requiring higher wages for overseas workers using H-1B visas, designed to stop foreigners undercutting potential US hires.
But the higher wage rules chime with some Democrats’ protectionist instincts on trade and immigration.
Last month, Dick Durbin, the Democratic chair of the Senate judiciary committee, which oversees immigration policy, along with Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate finance committee, reintroduced legislation to tighten restrictions on the H-1B and L visa programs.
Durbin said loopholes in the programs allowed companies to “displace qualified American workers”, “exploit foreign workers” and “facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs”.
Ronil Hira, an associate professor at Howard University and author of Outsourcing America, said employers were incentivized to hire workers on H-1B visas because they were able to pay them lower wages than US hires. Hira added US employers should also be required to demonstrate that they had tried and failed to hire a US citizen into the job.
“I think we should have high-skilled immigration, but we should do it in a way that is fair to immigrants, as well as US workers,” said Hira. “If there’s a tight labor market, it should be easy to pay high wages and demonstrate a shortage.”
Minear said she felt Biden’s record was “mixed” on the border issue. “In the past year, he’s done quite a lot to unwind all of the misery that was inflicted upon the immigration system during the four years that preceded him,” she said.
“I think it’s important for us to get a perspective on this mountain that we are climbing to get towards a better immigration policy amid a political reality that makes that very, very, very difficult for any administration.”