Lawmakers and employers all over the United States have been pressing the federal government to make it easier and quicker for asylum-seekers to get legal work permits, but there has been little sign of action on gridlocked Capital Hill.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul last Thursday publicly criticized the Biden administration for its inaction on immigration. Her remarks echoed those of New York City Mary Eric Adams, who said recently, “We must expedite work authorization for asylum-seekers, not in the future, but now.”
Adams has been one of the loudest voices on the matter: New York has received around 100,000 migrants seeking shelter and other cities like Boston and Chicago are also recipients of thousands of people who want work.
Business leaders are also desperate for more work permits. “I don’t think there’s a single person who can’t think of a situation in the last six months where they walked into a business and it wasn’t understaffed,” says Scott Grams, executive director of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association.
Grams recently signed a petition, along with other 120 businesses leaders, asking President Biden to expedite work permits for industries where there’s labor shortages
“Outside of periods of crushing recessions, labor is always our biggest challenge,” Grams says. “It’s been frustrating for him to watch thousands of migrants arrive in Chicago, and just wait for permission to work.
Anyone who has tried and failed to get a landscaper to call them back in the spring, he says, now knows the reason why.
Giving migrants easier access to work permits, adds Grams, would also push him to create more jobs for U.S. citizens. If he had the labor force to take on more projects he could “hire an account manager, a production manager, a construction supervisor, a designer. Hire more domestic workers.”
Despite all the enthusiasm for quicker work permits, there’s a lot of entrenched obstacles.
The application process, for one, can be incredibly confusing. “Not everyone understands how to navigate the immigration process as soon as they get here,” says Conchita Cruz, an executive of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.
Take someone like Eddie — the Colombian migrant sitting under the highway overpass. He has a year to figure out how to submit an asylum application, which he says he finds daunting.
He has to tackle that while also figuring out what he’ll do in 60 days when he can no longer stay at a shelter. Given the current situation in New York, it’s likely he’ll have a hard time finding a lawyer to help him. “That’s what a lot of the backup is,” says a human rights law professor from the University of Chicago. “The pro-bono panels are staffed. Nonprofits, all sorts of volunteers, are really at capacity.”
Once Eddie applies, he has to wait another 150 days to submit a work permit application and then, another 30 days to get approved.
Eddie is at the very least facing half a year without legal permission to work.
This is the norm, Cruz says. “It does take at least six months, if not significantly longer, to get a work permit.”
That, she says, can have a massive impact on migrants themselves.
“A lot of the asylum-seekers who are coming to the United States are parents of young kids. They have a family to support. And work permits are not just a path to getting a job, but in the United States, they really unlock a number of things like a driver’s license; the ability to access health care insurance — things that American citizens take for granted.”