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The U.S. economy is slowing as fewer immigrant workers come to fill jobs

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Employers in the U.S. are struggling to fill roughly 11 million open jobs. The pandemic gets most of the blame, but there is another factor that gets less attention. Fewer immigrants are coming to fill those jobs, particularly in some key industries that keep the economy moving. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE STARTING)

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This truck stop looks like any other on Interstate 81 in central Pennsylvania, except for the restaurant, where chef and owner Jagdeep Nayyar throws spices and herbs like coriander and fenugreek into a frying pan.

JAGDEEP NAYYAR: This is paneer bhurji - cheese - Indian cheese, crushed cheese - yeah - tomato and onion sauce.

ROSE: A few years ago, Nayyar closed the Subway franchise that used to be here, and he opened My Taste of India, one of a growing number of roadside restaurants around the country that cater primarily to truckers with roots in the Northwest Indian state of Punjab; like Gurtaj Singh (ph), who's picking up dinner on his way to Kentucky.

GURTAJ SINGH: I just stopped for the food. Here is a good Punjabi restaurant. Everything they make very nice.

RAMAN SINGH DHILLON: Punjabi community getting into the trucking is, like, enormous numbers. It's in the blood.

ROSE: Raman Singh Dhillon heads the North American Punjabi Trucking Association. In Fresno, Calif., where Dhillon lives, there's a longstanding Punjabi community. Over the past decade, Dhillon says Punjabis have taken to trucking in a big way and now make up as much as a fifth of the industry nationwide. But Dhillon says that growth has been limited the last few years as the coronavirus put the brakes on the U.S. immigration system.

DHILLON: There's a whole lot of people that should have been entered the country legally, were not able to enter. I have several people around me that their family members are stuck in India because their interviews are not done. And a lot of these newcomers, when they come in, their preferred industry to join is the trucking.

ROSE: Economists say the U.S. is missing more than a million immigrant workers who would otherwise be here were it not for the pandemic and cuts to legal immigration during the Trump administration. Some industries may be feeling this shortage even more acutely because they depend heavily on immigrant workers; like food service and health care, which both have more than 1 million open jobs, and also in trucking and warehousing, where roughly 1 in 5 workers are foreign born. Jeremy Robbins is the head of the American Immigration Council.

JEREMY ROBBINS: If you can't get the key workers you need, the whole industry slows down and the whole economy slows down. That has a real impact, not just on themselves and not just on the industries they're going to work on, but on the whole economy.

ROSE: Pretty much everyone agrees that fewer immigrants entered the U.S. labor force last year, but not everyone thinks it's a problem.

ROY BECK: My point is, that's good. Labor tightness is good.

ROSE: Roy Beck is the head of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit in Washington that pushes for lower levels of immigration. And he's the author of a new book called "Back Of The Hiring Line."

BECK: It is proven that you tighten the labor market and wages go up. It always happens. The fact that we had one year of less immigration contributed to that, and that's good. It's one of the most positive things that could happen for tackling the economic inequality.

ROSE: Beck argues that too much immigration hurts native-born workers, particularly those with less education, though many economists say the effect is small. By all accounts, there are other, bigger reasons for the current labor shortage, with millions of workers retiring or reluctant to come back to work during the pandemic. But it would be a mistake to ignore the effects of immigration, says Karthick Ramakrishnan. He teaches public policy at the University of California, Riverside.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: If you had a slowdown in immigration when there's very little demand for labor, you're not going to see that much of an effect. But we saw a lot of demand for labor even before the pandemic, and that has only accelerated.

ROSE: Right now, with millions of job openings, Ramakrishnan says there is a lot of demand for labor.

RAMAKRISHNAN: So absolutely the slowdown in immigration is making a difference.

ROSE: The missing immigrants wouldn't fill all of those open jobs, Ramakrishnan says, but they might help.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU, KEVIN HAYS, PATRICK ZIMMERLI'S "CRAZY QUILT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.