The Border Situation in the US is a Symptom, Not the Illness, of the Labor Shortages Most Developed Countries Will Continue to Face

The current range of policies to deal with irregular migration crossings in the US and other developed nations often focus on enforcement—such as turning away asylum seekers at the border with Mexico as President Biden did yesterday—and foreign aid to migrant-sending countries.

But addressing the unprecedented levels of irregular migration requires a fundamental shift in understanding the problem: People come whenever there are jobs to be filled in the American economy. It is true today, and it has been true for decades.

That is the main finding from my new study analyzing nearly 25 years of data of both crossings through the US Southwest border and a measure of labor market tightness in the US, which is the number of vacancies in the economy per unemployed person. The two series, as shown below, tend to move together, a relationship that surpasses rigorous empirical tests.

First graph showing trend of 25 years of US southern border crossings and second showing US labor market tightness

Note: The figure presents several versions of two time series: border crossings through the US Southwest border (continuous line) and job openings per unemployed person (dashed line). Panel (a) presents plots the series using the raw data; Panel (b) plots the trends computed after applying a Hodrick-Prescott (HP) filter on each series. The observations include data from December 2000 to January 2024.

The alignment of higher job availability in the US with increased border crossings over time suggests, simply put, there is an economic adjustment mechanism in which crossings decrease as the labor market cools. As such, the “border crisis” will fix on its own, naturally, as the labor markets cool off.

Furthermore, contrary to many narratives out there, this relationship between labor market tightness and border crossings is a feature of the data that survives all presidential administrations, from both major parties, since 2000 until today: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. As such, the results from my research suggest that, to put it bluntly, any administration facing a labor market as tight as President Biden currently faces would have also experienced such an unusual number of border crossings. Thus, it is not about migration enforcement, but rather about labor markets dynamics.

Naturally, there are factors in countries of origin that serve as “push” factors incentivizing people emigrate, such as violence and climate change, among others. But data on the countries of origins of these migrants show that there has not been a negative shock over the past few years of an order of magnitude that can explain these highly unusual flows on their own. It all goes back to the labor markets in the US.

As such, some policies by the Biden administration to ease the chaos in the border, like regional coordination as envisioned in the Los Angeles Declaration and development assistance to sending nations to increase opportunities at home are commendable.

At the core of all these strategies must be the creation of legal pathways for immigrants that can respond to labor market gaps. This is not only practical but essential, as the US–and many other developed countries for that matter—will continue to face important labor shortages as their populations age.

Moreover, defining a migration policy that can respond to labor market shortages, and as such be beneficial to all, shouldn’t be something particularly controversial to people on either side of the political spectrum.

In the evolving landscape of global labor markets, it is increasingly evident that developed countries need immigration from developing countries to meet their labor market demands. This dynamic, although complex, underscores a fundamental truth: immigration is not merely a social or political issue, but a crucial economic necessity.

This approach is not a one-sided benefit. Facilitating immigration can have substantial positive impacts on developing countries as well. Remittances from immigrants can significantly bolster the economies of their home countries, leading to improved living standards and economic stability. Furthermore, immigrants often gain skills and experience abroad that can contribute to their home economies if they return, fueling economic growth in their home countries.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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