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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

America's labor shortage crisis has been exacerbated by immigration restrictions that have reduced the number of both skilled and unskilled workers.

Between the lines: Most of the labor scarcity blame has been aimed at expanded unemployment benefits, hard-to-find child care and low wages. But there is a fourth leg to the stool.

By the numbers: Immigrant and non-immigrant visas issued during the year ended October 2020 were down by nearly five million, or 54%, from 2019.

  • 572,587 fewer people received temporary or permanent worker visas (H, L, O, P, Q, J, and E) in 2020, a 44% drop from 1.3 million in 2019.
  • The most significant drop-offs were for J and Q visas, for work- and study-based programs like au pairs, camp counselors and cultural exchange. Those were down 68% and 63%, respectively.
  • H-visas for specialty work, temporary agricultural and non-agricultural work fell by the smallest percentage (24%).

For context: The U.S. had a 6% job opening rate in April, with the highest rates of 11.6% rate in arts, entertainment and recreation, 10.1% in leisure and hospitality, and a 9.9% rate in accommodation and food services — which combined works out to over 3.1 million unfilled jobs.

Timeline: Almost all of this decrease can be tied to Trump administration decisions to close legal immigration avenues in the pandemic's early months, while also tightening rules and enforcement of undocumented immigration.

  • Freezes were put on green card applications in April, and most temporary work visas were halted in June.
  • President Biden reversed the green card decision and recently let the worker visa ban lapse.
  • But it will take time for the immigrant worker pool to be refilled, particularly as potential immigrants from certain countries remain blocked due to COVID-related health concerns. Moreover, many U.S. embassies and consulates continue to face massive backlogs of visa applications, often without enough resources to resume regular operations.

What they're saying: E.J. Dean, the third-generation owner of New England carnival operator Fiesta Shows, says that he's had to limit the number of rides offered this season because he's been unable to secure his typical supply of temporary workers from overseas (particularly from South Africa).

  • "I'm trying to get people locally, but I've never seen things so tight," Dean explains. "It’s not even about the pay. People set up interviews and then they don't show up for them."
  • Jon Baselice, VP of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, adds: “COVID-related travel restrictions continue to prevent many employers from meeting their workforce needs and they are causing significant business disruptions for many companies, especially smaller seasonal businesses across the country that are dealing with acute workforce shortfalls.”

The bottom line: The U.S. economy cannot fully recover from the pandemic if employers can't find enough employees.

Go deeper

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
Updated Sep 17, 2021 - Economy & Business

America fought the pandemic economy — and won

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S. economy is emerging from the pandemic with more well-paying jobs for those who want them, less hunger, less poverty, higher wages, less inequality, and more wealth for everyday Americans.

Why it matters: None of these outcomes were expected when the pandemic began. All of them are the result of massive government programs.

First look: Biden's economic case for green cards

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) is promoting the economic benefits and costs of providing green cards to millions of unauthorized immigrants in a blog post being released on Friday, according to a draft provided to Axios.

Why it matters: The post comes as the fate of millions of immigrants, including those with Temporary Protected Status or DACA protections, rests with Congress — and the Senate parliamentarian.

Mapped: Afghan refugees headed to 46 states

Expand chart
Data: White House; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

The Biden administration notified governors and mayors on Wednesday of the number of Afghan evacuees their state is expected to receive in the coming weeks, two senior administration officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Although their exact immigration pathway is still unclear, an initial group of 37,000 Afghans will soon be headed to states across the country after many faced harrowing journeys from Afghanistan.