Immigration shortfalls, like soaring housing prices, fuel California’s population drop

When people call Aquilina Soriano Versoza looking for at-home caretakers to hire, she often has to tell them she doesn’t have any available workers to refer.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago, she’s seen a steady drop in the number of immigrant workers migrating to California to fill those jobs, including Filipino immigrants, who constitute much of the caretaker industry. Filipinos are overrepresented among workers in a variety of healthcare occupations in the United States, studies show.

“People are looking to fill shortages that they have,” said Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California. “A lot of the people doing the home work are older themselves. The pandemic took a real toll on having people step back.”

The shortage in immigrant caretakers comes as California’s population continued to decline after falling for the first time on record during the pandemic. But while discussions around the state’s population decline tend to focus on the lack of affordable housing and the wider acceptance of teleworking, another thread is less examined: federal delays in processing foreign migration requests that began before the pandemic and were exacerbated as the virus spread across the globe.

“Immigrants make up a significant part of the workforce, especially on the private side of the industry providing care to those who need 24-hour care,” Versoza said. “The visas that bring nurses in are limited, and there is no real work visa to bring in home care workers because they’re still considered unskilled.”

The pandemic significantly affected international migration both to and from the United States, resulting in the lowest levels in decades, according U.S. Census Bureau data released in December. Census Bureau estimates showed a net gain of 244,000 new residents from immigration between 2020 and 2021 — a stark drop from last decade’s high of 1,049,000 between 2015 and 2016, and lower than the 477,000 immigrants added between 2019 and 2020.

Although California saw positive immigration last year — adding 43,300 people — the level was below the average annual rate of 140,000 before the pandemic, state demographers said. The drop in foreign migration to California has taken a toll on multiple industries, experts say, including hospitality, healthcare, agriculture and construction.

“A whole assortment of the service sector area has been tremendously affected by a lack of immigrant labor that we haven’t really seen and is just really unprecedented,” said Emily Ryo, professor of law and sociology at the USC Gould School of Law. “Immigrant labor has been a huge part of the long-term home care sector, and a decline in the population in California has had a significant effect.”

The state’s population declined by 117,552 between Jan. 1, 2021, and Jan. 1, 2022, bringing the estimated total population to 39,185,605, according to the state Department of Finance. The 0.3% decline represents a slowing compared with the 0.59% drop over the nine-month period between the April 2020 census date and that year’s end, demographers said.

The drop in foreign migration is due in part to the implementation of so-called Title 42 authority, a public health order that allows border agents to expel asylum seekers to Mexico. The decades-old policy was invoked during the Trump administration to curb the spread of COVID-19. After initially moving to lift Title 42, the Biden administration expanded its use of the policy earlier this month.

Several other federal immigration policies — including the “Remain in Mexico” policy meant to deter asylum seekers by keeping them out of the United States while their claims were processed, as well as then-President Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations and cuts to refugee admission caps — also have helped set the stage for diminishing migration. Those admission caps were raised last year by the Biden administration.

Ryo, whose research includes immigration detention, said that there is an “enormous” backlog at consulates trying to get back into processing immigrants, and that processing is happening at a “very slow pace.”

Those backlogs will have to be cleared if immigration is to “bounce back” to normal levels anytime soon, she said, “not just looking to Mexico and Central America, the countries we typically look at, but other countries that make up the legal immigration population.”

Still, Ryo is optimistic that immigration rates will grow nationally in the near future.

“There are signs that the decline in migration that we have seen is going to reverse itself,” she said. “That doesn’t mean California’s population is going to be reflected because there are other reasons why immigrants might not come to California in favor of places with lower taxes and relatively affordable housing.”

Although the increase in migrant populations may benefit states other than California, she said, the uptick in foreign migration could still bring in more immigrants to the Golden State.

But California’s economy, which is reliant on immigrant labor, will need more than a slow increase, said Victor Narro, project director for the UCLA Downtown Labor Center.

“A slowdown in migration combined with a decrease in population growth is really going to create a crisis in these industries,” Narro said. “Where are they going to get the labor they need?”

The agricultural industry in California relies on immigrant labor, he said, in addition to the workers needed for construction and in the healthcare industry, which calls on Asian workers for both nursing and at-home care — particularly Filipino workers.

“It’s not just Mexican or Latino workers,” Narro said. “It’s an immigration phenomenon and our immigration system is not equipped to deal with needs in these industries.”

He added that members of his generation — baby boomers — are aging and nearing retirement. Eventually, Narro said, there will be an even greater demand for immigrant labor to help take care of that generation in their homes, as well as in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“We need migration more than ever,” he said.

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