The flow of immigrants and refugees into the United States has ramped up over the past year, helping to replenish the American labor force after a decline that began with restrictions imposed under the Trump administration and that was compounded by the pandemic.
The Biden administration has been accelerating visa processing and broadly using humanitarian parole programs for migrants fleeing war and economic instability. Those efforts have driven a rebound in the foreign-born population — welcome news for the Federal Reserve, which has been concerned that a persistent shortage of workers could send wages higher and lead inflation to become entrenched.
Friday’s employment report for January, showing a blockbuster gain of 517,000 jobs, confirms that the economy continues to demand more labor. Moderating wage growth, however, suggests that enough workers are arriving to keep costs in check.
“When the unemployment rate goes down, you would normally expect wage inflation to go up, but that’s not what’s happening,” said Torsten Slok, chief economist at Apollo Global Management. “So there must be something else moving in the labor force, and there is a very likely explanation here that immigrants are coming in and taking jobs.”
But despite the resurgence in the foreign-born labor force — about four-fifths of it are people legally allowed to work in the United States, by one calculation — there are bottlenecks.
Legal immigration remains below pre-Trump levels. Hundreds of thousands of people await interviews with U.S. consular officials to obtain immigrant visas. Millions of asylum cases are pending, and getting work authorization for those already here can take years.