While most people view Labor Day as a long weekend and a final day for summer fun, the federal holiday is intended to honor the American worker and their contributions to building the nation’s industry.

Both Labor Day and May Day are the result of USA history that included the exploitation of English, Irish and German immigrant workers — they and their descendants helped to form our early labor movement, which brought fair labor practices and job protections.

The 8-hour work day, 5-day work week and fair compensation are results of early labor movements. In the 1800s, the need to have European immigrants enter the country to build its industry was accepted and there were several immigration waves and an open door policy. 

But today, with immigrants from places like Mexico, El Salvador, Africa and others not “white,” the current policy and political climate for immigrant workers isn’t favorable and there are long delays for those attempting to utilize the immigration system.

During a recent briefing held by Ethnic Media Services, there was concern that a lack of an immigrant workforce could damage the economy as the need for more workers continues to increase. Nearly 15% of job openings that aren’t being filled domestically and have employed immigrant or foreign-born workers in the US are still vacant, ranging from professional jobs in the sciences to meat packing and agriculture.

As the wheels of the legal immigration process move slowly, economists point out that more immigrants are needed to keep pace with US job creation post-pandemic and for long-term economic growth.

“From the middle of 2019 until the end of 2021, there has been essentially zero net immigration to the US,” said Giovanni Peri, Ph.D. professor of economics and the founder and director of the UC Davis Global Migration Center.

“Although in late 2021 and early 2022 these numbers started growing again, the fact that the inflow of immigrants stopped made the country lose more than 1.7 million [immigrants],” said Peri, who maintained that 900,000 immigrants would have been college educated, working in the STEM fields as doctors, computer scientists, biomedical engineers and bio experts.

Peri also said that 800,000 people would have been working in non-college-educated concentrated fields that include the food, hospitality, elderly and childcare fields, which have the highest number of openings.

In addition, the current US workforce is getting older.

“We have this huge baby boomer population that will retire and will continue to retire over the next 10 years, the labor force will continue to shrink,” said Peri. “In the long run, we will lose some of the productivity growth and we need to tackle immigration policies to address these issues.”

Peri said what can be done is to process visas, green cards and all the backlog that has been created and some of these visa and green card programs can speed up and catch up.

“If we really want to address the issue we need to introduce more policies,” he said. “We are talking about the 1.1% of the US labor force.”

A Polarized Congress Makes Immigration Reform a Distance Away

Gregory Z. Chen, senior director of Government Relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said reforms need to happen in Washington.

What reforms need to happen in Washington grew worse with the Donald J. Trump administration which “caused immigration to go sideways.”

When President Barack Obama left office, according to Chen, there were 500,000 immigration cases in the backlog compared to President Trump’s administration, which left a backlog of 1.4 million cases that are waiting to be heard.

“What is happening with the politics of immigration is not particularly optimistic,” Chen said. “The first component to look at is that we have seen tremendous delays in the past six or seven years, both in the courts and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. I’ve seen delays across the board in every category and even permanent employment visas that could lead to a green card.

“We have lost the level of interest that used to be there because of Trump … this divided immigration world that we live in means that it’s far more difficult to get anything passed and we aren’t able to see an immigration bill passed even next year — the agreement is just not there right now in Congress.

“As of today, we have about 1.6 million cases that are waiting to be heard, [each one] typically takes four to six years now,” Chen continued. “Many businesses can’t wait to be operational.” The Automated Export System (AES), the agency in charge of processing work permits, has increased its processing times from 180 days to up to seven months.

While the American public is reported to favor immigration reform, the damage is caused by negative immigrant rhetoric and a divided Congress, and a solution doesn’t appear in the near future to ease restrictions even for those immigrants who are in this country legally.

Critical Shortage of Nurses

Julie Collins, perfusionist and program director of the Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences in the College of Health Sciences at Rush University said there are currently 194,000 open positions for nurses in the United States and there aren’t enough US nurses to fill these positions. She worked alongside nurses on the COVID floor during the peak of the pandemic for two years.

“I saw how burned out nurses were during COVID. Some changed professions and took early retirement and some even died from COVID,” said Collins. “This left us with fewer nurses to fill the open positions in our units. The nurses are working short staffed and being asked to pick up extra shifts and they have to care for more patients than is safe.”

“There used to be one-on-one patient care and now oftentimes they have to take care of multiple patients and it’s not allowing them to care for patients as they should be and increasing the chances of making errors and not providing the care they want to provide and causing them emotional stress.”

Collins said filling nursing positions with qualified immigrant nurses is a solution and referenced the 1980s and 90’s when immigrant nurses played a vital role when hospitals were understaffed due to the AIDS epidemic.

As a daughter of immigrants, Collins said she has been witness to the huge flaws in the immigration system and sees the need for the H-1B process to be streamlined. The H-1B Visa is a special visa that allows foreign nationals to perform specialty occupations in the United States.

Collins said she has successfully hired H-1B immigrant workers to train her staff and she has also seen that the green card process could take up to 8 years. Additionally, she has witnessed the struggles of DACA students and how difficult it is for them to go to school.

Collins said due to all of the open positions, nurses are now being offered sign-on bonuses but once the bonuses are over, they move to another hospital where there is another sign-on bonus that can offer them the best work/life situation. 

“It takes time to train them and it’s a matter of time before they move on to another hospital.”

She said she understands they are trying to find the best work/home/life balance for themselves. She believes the best solution is to support immigrant workers and keep the numbers of those working with H-1B visas elevated over the next few years.