Why Biden Can’t Expedite Work Permits for Migrants


Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York has blamed the White House for failing to respond to her call to expedite work permits for the influx of migrants arriving in the state.

More than 100,000 migrants have traveled to New York City from the southern border over the past year, relying on the state and city government for food, shelter, medical care and education. Governor Hochul has been urging the Biden administration to get work permits to asylum seekers faster so that they can support themselves and their families as they wait out the years it takes for their cases to wind through the immigration system.

Under federal law, migrants have to wait about six months after they file their asylum application before they can apply for permission to work in the United States legally. This has forced asylum seekers to rely on communities to support them and has led to more people entering the illegal work force.

For New York, the costs to support the asylum seekers are in the billions. Other governors and local officials have made similar requests to the Biden administration, as they too have struggled to assist the influx of migrants.

For the most part, asylum seekers want to work and pay taxes, and businesses across the country are anxious to fill job openings that have lingered since the pandemic.

Here are the reasons the Biden administration can’t make changes quickly.

In 1996, Congress stipulated that asylum seekers had to wait nearly six months after they filed their asylum application before they could apply for permission to work in the United States. At the time, it was taking the government months to consider individual asylum applications, and there was a concern that tens of thousands of foreigners were using the system as a backdoor to work in the United States because they could work while they waited for a decision.

Lawmakers believed that forcing asylum seekers to wait six months before they could apply to work would discourage people from crossing the border illegally and making potentially fraudulent asylum claims so they could get jobs.

But over the years, the backlog for asylum applications has grown, and so has the wait time for cases to be decided. As of July, there were 2.5 million cases pending in immigration court, with an average processing time of four years, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

In that context, a six-month delay does little to discourage people from making fraudulent asylum claims. Instead, it places the burden on local communities to support asylum seekers for at least eight months and often longer. Migrants have one year from entering the country illegally to submit an asylum application. It is rare that people, who are often fleeing trauma and are unsettled in a foreign place, file asylum applications shortly after they arrive to the United States.

Processing applications for work permits for asylum seekers is not the issue. That generally takes less than two months, according to government data. The problem is how long migrants have to wait and rely on community support before they can submit their applications.

For the past 15 years, Congress has failed to agree on how to update the country’s immigration system, even as the current laws date back to the 1980s and 1990s and were designed around a much different U.S. economy and demographic set of migrants.

Immigration has become more and more politically divisive, and there is little sign lawmakers will find a compromise anytime soon.

There are proposals in both the House and Senate to reduce the wait time to apply for work authorization for certain asylum seekers from six months to 30 days. But there is scant support for either bill.

Lawmakers in both political parties worry that shrinking the wait time for work permits will encourage more migrants to cross the border illegally.

One of these options is to offer humanitarian relief to people from certain countries through a program called temporary protected status. This benefit, which typically lasts 18 months, comes with work authorization. The government can extend the relief as it sees fit.

Ms. Hochul and other officials have asked the Biden administration to make new and extend existing temporary designations, particularly for countries whose nationals have fled in large numbers and are seeking asylum in the United States. For New York, Ms. Hochul said, an expanded designation for Venezuelans would be particularly helpful since they make up a large share of the migrant population there. Currently, only Venezuelans who were in the United States on March 8, 2021, and applied by Nov. 7, 2022, are covered by the designation.

As of March, there were more than 610,000 people from 16 countries living in the United States under this designation. And there are more than 428,000 applications for this protection pending, with a median time of 13 months to process these applications. Even if the Biden administration expanded and made new designations, work authorizations would not likely get into asylum seekers’ hands any sooner because of the backlog.

The other option the president has that does not require Congress is to issue humanitarian parole, which comes with work authorization, on a case-by-case basis if there is an urgent need.

The Biden administration already does this for people from certain countries. One of those programs, which extends a two-year humanitarian parole for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who have sponsors committed to supporting their needs, is facing a legal challenge from 21 Republican-led states.

The administration also offers humanitarian parole of up to two years and immediate permission to apply for a work permit for some migrants who register through a smartphone app, called CBP One, for an appointment at an official port of entry on the U.S. southern border. But White House officials said very few people receiving humanitarian parole and eligible to apply right away for a work permit have done so.

Democrats in Illinois and other parts of the country are asking the Biden administration to create a humanitarian parole program that pairs with the individual employment needs of states. Gov. Eric Holcomb, Republican of Indiana, has said his state would support this type of program as well.

But a new humanitarian parole program that comes with work authorization would not do anything to help other asylum seekers in the country waiting for permission to work.

Ms. Hochul met with officials in the White House on Wednesday. The Biden administration said it would continue to help with housing and additional federal assistance for education and health services.

Officials also said the administration would launch an effort to assist asylum seekers — in New York and around the country — who are already eligible to apply for work authorization but have yet to do so. But that will only cover a fraction of the asylum seekers in New York who cannot support themselves.



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