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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Want a Fix for the U.S. Labor Shortage? Try Immigration Reform

Anti-immigration politics don’t just hurt immigrants and asylum-seekers. They're also holding the U.S. back from real solutions to a growing labor shortage that has resulted in supply chain slowdowns and a slew of child labor violations.
people holding american flags - immigration

U.S. Republicans conveniently pivoted away from the old “they’re taking our jobs” standby at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). They’re focusing their ire on crime and drugs instead, with some participants going as far as to blame the fentanyl crisis on immigrants. Former U.S. President Donald Trump upped the ante during his address by promising mass deportations if he is re-elected.

But decades of anti-immigrant sentiment have already hurt the labor market and played a huge role in why many U.S. employers are desperate for workers. What’s worse, the current shortage of adult workers is fueling an explosion in child labor. And it’s only going to get worse if trends continue. Between falling birth rates, the baby boomer retirement cliff and the wave of immigrants returning to their home countries after decades of working in the U.S., a shrinking labor force threatens to exacerbate and even entrench the problem of child labor. Fortunately, there is a solution: robust and proactive immigration reform.

From stolen jobs to fentanyl

Anti-immigrant attitudes may be a mainstay of conservative politics, but their justifications appear to be much more flexible. Trump’s 2015 invocations of “They’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our manufacturing jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re killing us,” might ring hollow now — and maybe even prompt some to question their political loyalties in light of an actual labor shortage. But extreme conservatives have no problem pivoting to a different excuse.

The latest: fentanyl. Republicans blamed President Joe Biden’s mythical “open border” for the uptick in fentanyl deaths in the U.S. “Pick up a dollar, and it’s got fentanyl on it, and you’re dead,” Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee said at CPAC. He declared every American to be at risk. 

None of this is true, of course. Fentanyl is not absorbed through the skin, nor is the majority brought into the country at unofficial crossings, as the likes of Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry have claimed.

The vast majority of fentanyl is actually brought into the country by U.S. citizens. In fact, 86.3 percent of those convicted of trafficking the substance are American, according to the Cato Institute. But the actual rate of smuggling by citizens could be even higher, thanks to the extra scrutiny faced by non-citizens at border crossings. After all, immigrants and asylum-seekers are much more likely to be interrogated, searched and caught, as the institute pointed out. Even under those circumstances, the drug is being seized at official border crossings or checkpoints within the border zone 9 out of 10 times.

Additionally, Trump also elaborated on his recurring claim that other countries are sending their worst. "Other countries are emptying out their prisons, insane asylums, and mental institutions and sending all of their problems right into their dumping ground,” he said at CPAC, without offering any proof to back up such claims.

Politics over solutions

Of course, the fact that conservatives are making excuses to keep people out, while ignoring the spate of labor issues that could be resolved through immigration, is hardly surprising. American politics are notorious for using the stick approach instead of the carrot, so it’s no wonder these politicians would rather address the shrinking population by eliminating a woman’s right to reproductive choice than by allowing immigrants to enter the country.

But we won’t fix the labor shortage by forcing those with uteruses to give birth while simultaneously barring would-be workers from coming across the border. Anti-immigration politics don’t just hurt immigrants and asylum-seekers  — they are damaging this country as a whole by preventing necessary additions to our labor force.

The future of labor depends on immigration

The vacuum created by the shortage of adult workers has resulted in the perfect storm for child labor violations as employers attempt to fill their workforces. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By instituting a vigorous immigration program with work visas and a path to citizenship, the U.S. can reverse the population slowdown and avoid a decline that many fear would decimate the economy and cause a range of supply chain issues and unmet needs.

Another Trump presidency could pummel the labor force even further, however. "Under my leadership, we will use all necessary state, local, federal, and military resources to carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” he promised CPAC crowds. While Trump is notorious for his broken promises, his words were clearly meant to stoke the flames of hatred that are behind accusations like fentanyl trafficking and job stealing. “We will pick them up, and we will throw them out of our country, and there will be no questions asked.” 

Image credit: Kerwin Elias/Unsplash

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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