States thought fast work permits would solve their migrant problems. It hasn’t.


The delays have strained their budgets and risk further fraying relations between President Joe Biden and some Democratic leaders who want the White House to provide faster relief.

Migrants are caught in the middle.

“I just want my permission to work, to be able to get ahead,” Javier, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker who arrived with his family at a New York City shelter in February and is still struggling to find work, said in an interview in Spanish. He only gave his first name for fear of deportation.

“It’s not only that the application is in English — that is very hard for us — but there are questions that we don’t understand. Even when they translate them, we need help,” he said.

He is among hundreds of thousands of migrants nationwide struggling to navigate the complex bureaucratic hurdles to get working papers — a yawning process that has pushed many to take dangerous and exploitative jobs off the books in fields like construction, landscaping or hospitality.

The problem has been particularly pronounced in New York, which has drawn more than 140,000 migrants since spring 2022, mainly from Venezuela. About half of them are still in the city’s care, according to Mayor Eric Adams.

The troubles persist even after Biden in September expanded a designation known as temporary protected status for a faster path to work authorization for Venezuelan migrants — opening a pathway to some 472,000 additional people across the country.

“Work authorization is the way out of the migrant crisis,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at the time.

Since October, Hochul said more than 5,500 work authorization applications have been completed in New York — a fraction of those eligible.

Immigration advocates warned that while the road to work authorization under TPS might be shorter, it’s still lined with hurdles — and monthslong waits.

“We are making this assumption that that is like an automatic thing,” Hildalyn Colon Hernandez, deputy director of the immigration advocacy group NY NICE, said. “It’s not like a switch.”

The barriers are far-reaching, with a limited number of immigration attorneys, a lengthy backlog of cases and shelter policies forcing migrants to move every 30 or 60 days — complicating the need for stable addresses where they can receive vital paperwork.

“One of the biggest problems with our immigration system is that it is so out of date and so inefficient,” Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said.

A resource center set up by the Adams administration last July in Manhattan has helped migrants file about 2,900 TPS applications and roughly the same number of work permit applications. The federal government started accepting them in early October.

“We need to clear up the backlog, because to do the paperwork to sit on someone’s desk is inefficient,” Adams said at a press conference in October.

On Tuesday, Adams announced the city has opened two additional state-funded sites for application assistance and will open more in the coming weeks. “While we continue to call for a national strategy to solve a national crisis, New York City continues to do its part,” the mayor said in a statement.

The federal government in September opened its own clinics, partnering with the city, state and volunteer immigration attorneys to fast-track work authorization.

It seemed to help, some. According to a White House official, 2,200 work permits were approved in the New York clinics as of Nov. 20. The official noted that work applications are taking an average of 30 days to process. The city, state and federal government said they plan to open more facilities.

“This is a product of collaboration between the city and state of New York and the federal government, and the Biden-Harris Administration looks forward to continuing these efforts in the coming weeks,” White House spokesperson Angelo Hernandez Fernandez said in a statement.

New York State labor commissioner Roberta Reardon said employers are open to hiring migrants. Her department has been working with 750 businesses that have 34,000 job openings. But the prospective employees don’t have the necessary paperwork to start.

“The pinch point is the work authorization,” she said.

A lengthy legal process

Migrants applying for asylum face a complex process that starts with filling out a 12-page form explaining in detail why they fled their home country. After submitting that application, which is difficult to do without an immigration lawyer, they’re required to wait at least six months — if not longer — to qualify for work authorization.

Newcomers who are eligible for TPS — which covers at least 15,000 Venezuelan migrants currently in New York City’s care — follow a shorter path to work permits. But it still takes at least a month — and has historically taken closer to three — to get legal assistance. And there is a steep application fee of about $545 if a person can’t get a waiver for the cost.

The paperwork doesn’t end there. TPS applicants must show proof of Venezuelan nationality and the date they entered the U.S. That’s not an easy requirement given the long and grueling journey from Venezuela to New York.

“I’ve met a lot of people who, maybe while they were in the jungle, dropped a folder into the river and suddenly lost their passport and Venezuelan birth certificate,” said David Wilkins, an immigration attorney at Legal Services NYC, which provides free assistance to low-income people in the five boroughs.

Finding a lawyer is a big part of the problem. The American Immigration Lawyer Association said it has roughly 2,000 members who cover various aspects of immigration law across the country, but only a few have the expertise to handle asylum-seeker casework.

“You’re really tapping into practitioners who work more on humanitarian and asylum type work,” Kushal Patel, the chair of the group’s New York chapter, said. “It’s a small segment of the population of immigration attorneys that we’re asking to give their time.”

He noted that attorneys handling asylum cases often are pro bono, which limits how many people they can help. Nonprofit organizations have struggled to fill the holes.

A backlog in legal assistance was an issue prior to the recent surge of newcomers, following immigration battles under former President Donald Trump and processing delays spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now it’s even worse.

Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said New York City’s lack of immediate action to bolster legal services when asylum-seekers first started arriving last spring has forced them to “play a game of catch-up.”

As the city works to get migrants who have been here for months or longer connected to legal aid, there are more in need of the same services arriving each day. New York can get between 2,000 to 4,000 new migrants each week.

“You can’t wait almost a full year [to provide legal services] and then be upset that no one’s actually had support to get their applications in,” Awawdeh said.

Shelter policies exacerbating challenges

The Adams administration’s move to limit shelter stays for migrants has forced people to bounce between different places — leaving them without a stable address to receive paperwork.

While asylum-seekers can go back to city officials to seek another shelter placement, they’re not guaranteed a new bed.

Amer, a 26-year-old migrant from Sudan, told POLITICO outside the city’s asylum-seeker resource center in midtown Manhattan that he entered a shelter in late September after arriving in New York. A month later, he was evicted from the shelter under the 30-day rule and has had to return to the intake center daily for one-night placements.

“Today I have to go again to ask for next night,” said Amer, who was granted anonymity to discuss his plight.

Immigration lawyers and elected officials have raised concerns with the forced moves, noting migrants could miss key correspondence related to their immigration cases.

“I don’t think they’ve thought this through, which is why there’s a ton of precarity here in the applications being denied if you’re moving around a lot,” City Council Member Shahana Hanif, chair of the body’s immigration committee, said.

What about those who don’t have TPS?

On a recent afternoon, Bryan Tituaña, a 27-year-old from Ecuador, left the city’s migrant resource center after completing the first step in his legal journey: his asylum application.

But because he is from a country without TPS status, he will have to wait 150 days before he’s eligible for legal work. He said he takes up odd jobs in construction, hospitality or at restaurants, but a majority of employers won’t hire him until he gets formal permission to work.

The former chef and musician said he fled his country amid political strife and was robbed of his belongings in Mexico prior to crossing the border into Arizona. He is part of the roughly 60 percent of migrants in the United States who don’t have TPS status and thus face longer waits.

“To get a lawyer is really expensive, they said it’s $8,000 to $10,000 to start,” Tituaña said in Spanish. “It’s really hard, because this city is really expensive.”



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