The Volokh Conspiracy

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US Regains Pre-Trump, Pre-Pandemic Immigration Levels

We owe this achievement to a combination of Covid vaccines and Biden Administration policy changes. But much more can be done.


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The combination of Donald Trump's restrictionist policies and the Covid-19 pandemic caused a massive decline in immigration to the US from 2016 to 2021. But over the last two years, the US has largely returned to pre-Trump/pre-pandemic immigration levels. The Financial Times has a helpful summary of this shift:

Immigration is back, in the US at least. Over the past two and a half years, immigration into the American labour market has increased by 4mn workers, and the working age immigrant population has now finally reached its pre-pandemic trend level. This is likely to be a central factor in strong employment growth, particularly in leisure and hospitality. It is also part of the story on increasing workforce participation, as well as being good news for the fight against inflation….

In the US, immigration accounted for about half of the growth in the working age population between 1995 and 2014 according to Pew Research. Unfortunately, between Donald Trump's "build a wall" jingoism and the Covid pandemic, there was then a sharp drop in immigrant workers. Over the course of four years, according to a February paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve, the Trump administration took 472 executive actions aimed at reducing immigration, from increasing immigration enforcement to freezing refugee admissions to moving away from family immigration. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of new permanent residents dropped 13 per cent and the number of student F1 visas declined 23 per cent. Covid didn't help. Many laid-off workers lost visas or simply preferred to ride out the pandemic in their own countries. The two trends together fuelled a strong tightening in the labour markets, according to the San Francisco paper. The authors found that the drop in immigration from 2017 onwards resulted in a 5.5 percentage point increase in the vacancy to unemployment ratio in the US.

But happily, the recent uptick has resulted in a 6 percentage point reduction to that ratio. More than 900,000 immigrants became US citizens during 2022 — the third highest level on record and the most in any fiscal year since 2008, according to Pew….

Bottom line — the US seems to be returning to pre-Trump, pre-pandemic rates of immigration.

This is a highly beneficial development. Most obviously, it has allowed many thousands of immigrants to escape poverty and oppression and find greater freedom and opportunity. In addition, as the Financial Times notes, increased immigration also creates major benefits for the US economy as a whole. Immigration restrictions inflict great economic harm on natives as well as would-be immigrants, and constrain the economic freedom of natives more than virtually any other US government policy.

Some of the credit for increasing immigration goes to the vaccine producers who played a key role in ending the Covid pandemic. Fittingly, immigrants from poor nations or the children thereof played a key role in developing both of the first two Covid vaccines approved by the US government. By so doing, they not only saved millions of lives, but also helped facilitate the return of immigration to normal levels. Lowering immigration restrictions further would enable more such life-saving innovations (to which immigrants contribute disproportionately).

While the waning of the Covid pandemic was a crucial factor, much of the credit for increased immigration goes to Joe Biden. He has reversed many of Trump's restrictionist policies. In addition, he has opened up new pathways for legal immigration by creating private sponsorship opportunities, such as the Uniting for Ukraine program and its extension to migrants from four Latin American nations. In this latter respect, Biden has not only been more open to migration than Trump (a very low standard of comparison!), but also more so than the Obama Administration was.

Biden's immigration policies are far from perfect. I have been highly critical of his new Trump-lite asylum restrictions, the double game he played on Title 42 "public health" expulsions (this may now be about to end, after two awful years), and other flaws. Moreover, most of the present administration's achievements rest on discretionary exercises of executive power that could potentially be reversed in the future, if a more restrictionist administration comes to power. But, on balance, Biden has presided over great progress in this field, especially compared to his predecessor.

But there is much room for further progress. The example of Canada—which accepts several times more immigrants relative to population than the US does—is just one indication of what is possible.

UPDATE: The Financial Times article cites research on how mobility after arrival in the US has been a crucial factor in immigrants' economic success relative to otherwise similar native-born workers. I discussed this issue in more detail in a July 2022 post, where I also note ways in which we can make it easier for natives to "move to opportunity."