On Monday night, President Trump announced that he would sign an executive order halting immigration into the U.S. The 38-word tweet was short on details. Most immigration is stopped already, leaving rumor mills to spin as more information emerged from other sources. Trump’s motivation for further suspending immigration was clear–COVID-19 necessitates more restrictions to protect U.S. jobs.
There are good reasons to restrict immigration during a pandemic. To avoid spreading COVID-19, households across the country are limiting visits to grocery stores and physical visits with extended family, and immigration represents the same risk. And yet there are a lot of ways to restrict immigration, some will be worse than others. The limited details suggest that Trump may be targeting green cards, closing America to thousands of potential immigrants.
The right approach to immigration during a pandemic maintains a supply of critical workers for industries. Any COVID-19 related immigration restrictions should be quickly lifted as an integral part of reopening America.
U.S. businesses depend on immigrant workers
U.S. businesses and farmers have an appetite for migrant workers. Without them, crops can spoil in the fields. As a major grower described one visa program in May of 2017, “It’s the only option out there.” Reporting indicates that these farmworkers are unlikely to face suspension in Trump’s eventual order.
Although details have not been officially released, allowing for farmworkers is the right move. The uncomfortably empty shelves that Americans saw as everyone stocked up on extra food and supplies “just in case” could linger without these workers. Migrant workers are essential for keeping Americans fed throughout the fight against COVID-19.
Consider the results from a 2018 survey of migrant workers commissioned by the Department of Labor. It found that 69 percent, almost seven out of ten hired farmworkers were born in Mexico. Another six percent were from Central America. That makes three out of four hired farmworkers migrants.
These numbers make clear that U.S. farmers and growers couldn’t provide the services they do without migrant workers.
Can’t Americans work those jobs? Sure, but they have better options
Though why couldn’t Americans step into these openings? In fact, many Americans will. U.S. workers have better opportunities for their skills elsewhere in the economy. It’s not that the average American couldn’t do the job, but that accountants should be crunching numbers, not picking crops.
That mismatch between Americans’ skills and the labor needs of farmers makes efforts to protect jobs wrongfooted. Still, the concern that Americans might lose jobs to immigrants or be paid less is an argument that economists take seriously. Luckily, what researchers find gives more cause for optimism than fear. There are significant economic barriers for some Americans, but overall U.S. workers find new and better opportunities in response to immigration. For example, by pursuing more education, or by moving into roles that complement the skills of the migrant workers.
Another reason for this is that immigrant workers create ripple effects far outside of the job openings that they fill. Additional workers must buy their groceries, get their cars fixed, and even enjoy a socially distant take-out order from shops and restaurants. Immigrants aren’t just workers; they’re customers that grow local economies.
The risk that immigrants exacerbate those challenges is small, but good policy can eliminate it. Instead of suspending immigration, an effective system should support education and training programs for natives who might be harmed by immigration — for example, those who have not completed a high school degree. One possibility might incentivize Americans to pursue trade schools or college education.
Programs like education support should be part of wholesale immigration reform. We should create a system that is more open to workers from outside of the U.S. — for example, streamlining visa programs that farmers use to hire workers. The current process can be expensive and time-consuming for farmers who would otherwise use them.
Suspending immigration won’t aid the recovery from COVID-19. Thousands of immigrants are “essential workers” that help get food onto store shelves for Americans to enjoy. Farming is just one example, but healthcare workers are another.
The right way forward after the COVID-19 pandemic carries a recognition of how much immigrants help America. Suspending immigration out of fear will only slow down our recovery and leave thousands of helpful hands idle when they could be working.