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


Chicago, Boston, New York City are all struggling to house migrants. New York alone has received around a hundred thousand people over the last year or so. New York's governor, Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has had harsh words for President Biden this week. And one request officials make of the administration is to expedite work permits, the argument being that the faster people can go to work, the faster they can leave the shelter system. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Go to almost any migrant shelter in New York, and you'll notice groups of men sitting on curbs or park benches, waiting.

EDDIE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Eddie (ph) is sitting under a highway overpass eating lunch - rice and chicken. He asks that his last name be withheld because he says he's fleeing violence between armed groups in Colombia. He wants to apply for asylum. While he figures out how, he just wants to work. But like so many migrants, he keeps getting asked for work papers, which he doesn't have.

EDDIE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He says it keeps him up at night. It's not just Eddie who wants Eddie to work.


ERIC ADAMS: Let them work.

GARSD: Lately, New York City Mayor Eric Adams gives what feels like the same exact press conference over and over again in which he makes this plea to the federal government.


ADAMS: We must expedite work authorization for asylum-seekers, not in the future, but now.

GARSD: Business leaders are also desperate for more work permits. Scott Grams is the executive director of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association.

SCOTT GRAMS: 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.

GARSD: He recently signed a petition along with over 120 other business leaders, asking President Biden to expedite work permits for industries where there's labor shortages, like manufacturing, farm work and hospitality.

GRAMS: Outside of periods of crushing recession, labor is always our biggest challenge.

GARSD: It's been frustrating for him to watch thousands of migrants arrive in Chicago and just wait for permission to work.

GRAMS: And that's why landscapers don't get back to you for about nine weeks if you try to call them in May.

GARSD: Despite all the enthusiasm for quicker work permits, there's a lot of entrenched obstacles. Conchita Cruz is the co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.

CONCHITA CRUZ: Not everyone understands how to navigate the immigration process as soon as they get here.

GARSD: Someone like Eddie, the Colombian migrant sitting under the highway overpass, has a year to figure out how to submit an asylum application. After that, he has to wait another 150 days to submit a work application. So Eddie is looking at, at the very least, half a year without legal permission to work. There is proposed legislation to expedite work permits for asylum-seekers, but experts say Congress is just too divided to pass it. Another major problem - backlogs. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is funded by Congress, is completely backed up, says Cruz.

CRUZ: They just don't have enough staff to do it. Some of these backlogs are now many years old, so they're backlogs that existed even before COVID.

GARSD: In a statement to NPR, the Department of Homeland Security said they continue to, quote, "call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform." There are 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. He could also tell immigration services to prioritize work permits. But backlogs would still be an issue. And taking any of these actions could be too much of a political hot potato. Susan Gzesh teaches human rights law at the University of Chicago.

SUSAN GZESH: I think that they are very cautious about doing anything that makes it look like it could be characterized as an incentive for more unauthorized migration.

GARSD: Meanwhile, without the ability to legally work, many migrants are being pushed into the underground economy.

ANDRE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Andre (ph) is from Venezuela. He's also hoping to apply for asylum. He asked that his last name be withheld. One reason being he's renting out someone's identity so that he can work delivering food.

ANDRE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He works around 12 hours a day. A chunk of what he makes goes to the person he rents his online profile from. What's left in the end is not a lot. It goes mostly to his family back home, which is better than nothing but barely enough.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.