As New York, Illinois and Massachusetts leaders grapple with the growing influx of migrants, their message to the Biden administration is as simple as what New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently said: "We must grant, expedite, work authorization."
The argument is clear; the faster migrants can work, the faster they can gain financial independence.
In reality though, the work authorization system is anything but fast.
"If I get a work permit, I would like to open a restaurant. I really like to cook," said Margarita Rivera, a Nicaraguan asylum-seeker who fled her country because of political persecution and arrived in Chicago last winter.
With help from the Centro Romero, a Chicago nonprofit, Rivera applied for a work permit in February, but she's still waiting to get it.
In the meantime, she feels a sense of purpose by volunteering at Centro Romero, and relies on fellow Nicaraguan exiles for financial support.
But for many migrants navigating the asylum process, waiting isn't always an option.
"Even if they're at a shelter, sometimes the food is not sufficient. They still need shoes, they still need diapers, they still need to get from one place to another. So a lot of them begin to work without authorization," said Maria Salgado, the manager of Centro Romero's legal department.
Salgado says Centro Romero has helped 1,200 migrants apply for work permits over the past 12 months, and only 5% have received one.
She says that's mostly because it takes 9 to 14 months for the government to process cases, but it's also due to the difficulty of keeping in touch with migrants.
"We have lost contact with some of them because they're being moved from one shelter to another," Salgado said. "You know, all of a sudden their cell phone is disconnected, and we can't reach them to let them know they have an appointment."
Meanwhile, many employers are in dire need of workers, particularly in the hospitality, construction and agriculture sectors.
"We have an employer in Chicago who owns hotels that the migrants are currently housed in. And some of them want to work for him at the hotels, and he needs workers," said Rebecca Shi, the executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, an organization representing hundreds of employers facing labor shortages.
Under federal law, those who apply for asylum have to wait at least six months before getting work permits. Migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who enter the country under recently expanded parole programs can apply as soon as they arrive.
The Biden Administration also said on Wednesday it would grant temporary legal status to migrants from Venezuela who were already in the U.S. The move is expected to apply to some 472,000 migrants, making them more quickly eligible for work.
Biden administration officials tell Scripps News they have sent more than 1 million texts and emails to hundreds of thousands of non-citizens to remind them to apply for work permits. Critics say making it too easy for migrants to get work authorization could encourage more to come to the border.
Local officials, though, say they want more federal funding and more concrete steps to fast-track work permits.
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