May 11 saw the expiration of Title 42, a COVID-19 pandemic policy that restricted immigration at our southern border. We are witnessing what was widely predicted, which is a dramatic new wave of migrants coming into the U.S. at the southern border—dwarfing the waves that have come in recent months from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua.
These prosperity-seekers are also coming at a time when the U.S. is suffering a severe labor shortage. In February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were nearly 10 million job openings. Economists estimated that two years of lost immigration is responsible for nearly half of the workers missing from the labor force. In March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce showed that between 20 and 60 percent of jobs remained unfilled in key work sectors including manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, financial services, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality. As more Americans approach retirement age—and also decline work in crucial but physically demanding fields like agriculture and home health care—we are facing an enormous workforce crisis.
Why do we bring these two topics together here? Because there is a smart solution connecting them that would benefit everyone—America’s employers, America’s consumers, longtime immigrants, and newcomers alike. In recent months, addressing the migrant surge, the Biden administration offered a very limited number of humanitarian parole slots to newcomers from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua to quickly allow them to have temporary legal and work status in the U.S.
Some migrants in border states, as well as in large cities like New York and Chicago where they have newly settled, were able to legally attain jobs in high-need sectors including construction, food service, and farmwork. It’s been a boon for both employers and jobseekers.
We join a growing chorus of governors and U.S. senators in urging the Biden administration to expand that parole program to longtime contributing migrants who work in key fields like agriculture and food service, including young Dreamers who are too young to be eligible for the DACA program.
How would this be done? We endorse a policy that Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb and Utah Governor Spencer Cox, both Republicans, called for: give states the authority to apply for parole visas for the immigrants they need to meet their particular labor needs. This system would open up jobs for migrants who are hungry to work, and it would give states a new way of attracting much-needed workers to critical sectors of the economy. In other words, conjoin two crises—the migrant wave and the labor shortage—and create vast opportunities out of both.
Our national immigration debate has become a tiresome, gridlocked refrain: Liberals call for a humane response to newcomers and conservatives call for a tight border that clamps down on illegal migration into the U.S. Neither are focused on immigrants’ substantial contributions and economic potential. This idea—allowing states to petition for the immigrant workers they need (including none if they so choose to forego this opportunity)—addresses both concerns. It would create a sufficient opportunity to reduce illegal crossing and it would obligate states who availed themselves of this extraordinary opportunity to meet baseline standards of decency in their treatment of such workers.
The overwhelming pressure at the southern border can be managed by a hydraulic system similar to a dam. Neither Donald Trump’s wall nor Barack Obama’s mass deportations could hold back countless prosperity seekers from Latin American countries trying to get here to access U.S. wages. The only way to manage this pressure is via a spillway designed to reduce the pressure. While Congress stalls, we should let states address their workforce needs. That would create some order at the border and lower food prices for all Americans.
Our migrant surge and our labor shortage are both challenges for the U.S. But we can fold them both into a solution that unlocks the dignity of legal work for immigrants—and infuses our dangerously underpopulated key work sectors with new life, energy, and ambition. This is a plan that both economy-minded Republican governors like Cox and Holcomb and immigrant advocates can get behind. It’s humane, practical-minded, and it’s good for America’s future.
Rebecca Shi is executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC).
Bob Worsley is chair and CEO of ZenniHome, Arizona Republican state senator (retired), and co-chair of ABIC.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.