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There's a labor shortage in the U.S. Why is it so hard for migrants to legally work?

Migrants at the Clinton Hill Shelter seek relief from the overcrowded confinements of 47 Hall Street. Residents working as delivery drivers wait for orders to come in, Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 19, 2023.
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Migrants at the Clinton Hill Shelter seek relief from the overcrowded confinements of 47 Hall Street. Residents working as delivery drivers wait for orders to come in, Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 19, 2023.

At almost any migrant shelter in New York it's easy to see men — sitting on curbs or park benches — waiting. Eddie is one of those people, sitting under a highway overpass, eating a lunch of rice and chicken. He asked that his last name be withheld, because he says he's fleeing violence between armed groupsin Colombia.

Eddie wants to apply for asylum but more immediately, he just wants to work. Like so many migrants, he keeps getting asked for work papers. The fact that he doesn't have them, he says, keeps him up at night.

It's not just Eddie who wants Eddie to work. Lawmakers around the country have been pressing the federal government to expedite work papers for asylum-seekers. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul last Thursday publicly criticized the Biden administration for lack of action on immigration. Her remarks echoed those of New York City Mayor 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. Chicagoand Boston — also recipients of thousands of people — have joined the request.

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 over120 other businesses leaders, askingPresident Biden to expedite work permits forindustries where there are labor shortages: manufacturing, farm work and hospitality just to name a few.

"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, co-executive director 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 human rights law professor Susan Gzesh 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."

There is proposed legislation to expedite work permits for asylum-seekers. But experts say, Congress is just too divided to pass it.

That legislation wouldn't address one of the major problems in getting work permits approved quicker: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, funded byCongress, is completely backed up. "They just don't have enough staff to do it," Cruz says. "Some of these backlogs are now many years old. So they're backlogs that existed even before COVID. There was a huge slowdown in processing during the Trump administration. "

There are also difficult questions around fairness, says Muzaffar Chishti, a director at the Migration Policy Institute. There are around 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many who've been here for decades and have no way to get a work authorization. "So to say these recent arrivals have more privilege than them, is an equity issue that is difficult to argue."

In a statement to NPR, the Department of Homeland Security said it continues to "call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

There are, however, some things the president could do on his own. He could extend TPS — temporary protected status — to more people. That allows people to apply for work permits faster. He could grant humanitarian parole to more people, although his efforts to do so are currently on trial. And he could also tell Immigration Services to prioritize work permits.

Even then, backlogs would be an issue.

Taking any of these actions could be too much of a political hot potato, especially with an election on the horizon. "I think that they are very cautious about doing anything that could be characterized as an incentive for more unauthorized migration," says professor Gzesh.

The application process for work authorization takes so long, many migrants have started working without papers, at high risk, low pay jobs like food delivery.
/ Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Jasmine Garsd/NPR
The application process for work authorization takes so long that many migrants have started working without papers, at high-risk, low-pay jobs like food delivery.

Meanwhile, without the ability to legally work, many migrants are being pushed into the underground economy. Angel, from Venezuela, is also hoping to apply for asylum. He asked that his last name be withheld. One reason: He's renting out someone's identity, so that he can work delivering food. He says he asked around for work "but they ask you for a Social Security number, an ID, so many things I don't have. So I just rent an account out and can work in peace. It's the most logical move for people like us, without papers."

Angel works around 12 hours a day. A significant portion of what he makes goes to the person he rents his online profile from. What's left is not a lot. It goes mostly to his family back home.

It's better than nothing — but barely enough.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd
Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.