How the Build Back Better Act Can Turn the US Economy Around
COVID-19 has exposed major gaps in the U.S. labor force, including immigration concerns for millions of foreign workers due to USCIS processing delays.
Immigration experts point out that in addition to policy changes during the Trump administration, which made work authorization even more strenuous for asylum seekers and immigrants coming to the US, COVID-19 exacerbated the issue with further consulate and agency closures in alignment with quarantine measures. The foreign nationals already in the US have been waiting for months or over a year for work authorization. This major delay has led to these individuals to make the difficult decision to quit their jobs after their current authorization expires. By the end of June 2021, more than 1.3 million work authorization applications were pending with USCIS and an estimated 1.5 million immigrants are still waiting for employment-based green cards, with roughly 850,000 of those workers simply waiting to adjust their status. USCIS has tried to alleviate some of the backlog by taking certain measures such as: temporarily suspending certain biometrics requirements for some groups and granting extensions of work permits, but the issue persists.
It is estimated by the Census Bureau that there were over 1 million immigrants in the US in 2016, leaving only about 480,000 in 2020, according to JPMorgan Researchers. The steady decline of immigrant workers coupled with the 1.7 million people that retired during the pandemic, has threatened not only the labor force but also the overall economic productivity.
The Democrat's $1.7 trillion Build Back Better legislation is aimed at addressing the labor force gap caused partly by immigration complications due to USCIS delays and backlogs. To provide some background, Employment-based visas are capped at 140,000 each year and will expire at the end of the year if they go unused. Currently individuals from any one country only have access to about 7% of the annual amount of work-based and family-based green cards, with individuals from certain countries facing a wait that spans years. The proposed legislation would recapture immigrant visas starting from 1992, which could potentially open up 157,000 work-based visas and about 262,000 family-based visas – both allowing applicants to work.
The bill has yet to be passed due to lack of support from Republicans and there are those who criticize the effectiveness of the act. For example, The Federation for American Immigration Reform argued in an analysis of the Build Back Better act that "the sudden increase in the supply of legal labor generated by amnesty would likely further contribute to wage stagnation, giving employers even less incentive to raise wages." Robert Law, director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, adds that he is concerned the funds proposed would not be enough to combat the immense backlog issues UCSIC is facing. Law believes that "There's too much volume, there's too many other obstacles."
Despite the concerns, the Build Back Better Act is focused on providing temporary protection and work authorization to an estimated 7 million undocumented immigrants — including Dreamers and farmworkers — who are already in the U.S., leading Democrats to remain hopeful that this will kickstart the economic recovery.