This article was first published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Facebook.
Juan Carlos Bello, a migrant from Venezuela, was out of options and money, trapped in an immigration maze. On a sweltering late summer day, he was expelled from a shelter in Brooklyn to make way for arriving migrant families. He was left to make his way in the city of immigrants on his own, stranded in the street, towing two suitcases containing all his possessions. He had been living in shelters, without a regular job, since he arrived ten months earlier after wading across the border river in Texas, his lodging and meals paid for by the city of New York.
Although he was grateful for the assistance, Bello had never wanted to live in a shelter, be unemployed or depend on any government. “I’m a working person,” he said. “I am used to living on what I produce.” In Caracas, before he had to flee Venezuela’s leftist government, he had built a thriving business installing kitchens. He had skills, and all around him in New York, he saw construction jobs on offer. His goal was to win asylum and go to work as soon as possible so he could rent his own dwelling and support his family, still stuck in Venezuela.
But Bello was still at least six months from obtaining a legal work permit and probably four years from a court decision on his asylum claim, given the legal and bureaucratic obstacles of the asylum system.
As a presidential election year approaches, immigration is once again a political cudgel, and Democrats are fearful they’ll suffer at the polls. With more than 107,000 migrants landing in New York over the past year, the long delays for asylum seekers to be authorized to work legally have emerged as a pressing problem for Mayor Eric Adams and other city and state officials facing a migrant influx. For months, Adams, who said on Wednesday that the migrant overload “will destroy New York City,” has harangued President Joe Biden to expedite work permits so migrants could become self-supporting and move off city services.
By late August, almost 60,000 migrants were still living in more than 200 city shelters, and Adams said the city would spend $5 billion this year on migrant care. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York joined the Democrats’ clamor, meeting with officials in the White House, while Gov. Maura Healey of Massachusetts declared a state of emergency.
Finally, the White House relented, with a solution that had been hiding in place for months: Hundreds of thousands of immigrants were already eligible to apply immediately for work authorization. They had entered the country in the past two years with a temporary permission called a parole, which allows them to avoid the 180-day waiting period the law requires for those pursuing asylum cases.
On Sept.1, Department of Homeland Security officials began texting hundreds of thousands of migrants in New York and around the country, alerting them that they could apply right away for work permits, telling them something legal experts in the administration had long known. The notices were “the start of a government-wide effort to integrate newly arrived non-citizens into the American workforce,” a Homeland Security official said in a statement.
But it was not certain the administration’s improvised fix would succeed without creating new logjams in the asylum pipeline, and it only served to reveal the general dysfunction in the asylum system in which so many migrants like Juan Carlos Bello were trapped.
Migrants in the recent wave, whether or not they have legally compelling stories of persecution, are seeking asylum because, for most, that is the only possible route to legal immigration status. For many, the confusion began soon after they crossed the border. They were given notices to check in with the immigration police or to appear in court, often on dates two or three years in the future. However, asylum seekers face a one-year deadline from the day they entered the United States to file a claim in court. Although New York is generous with legal services, competent attorneys who can prepare a persuasive claim are severely overworked. If migrants do learn of the deadline before it expires, they admit they often put off filing until just before one year is up to have more time to prepare a claim.
The courts have been slow to mail the receipt confirming a claim was filed, the crucial document that starts the clock on the six-month work permit wait. That clock can stop for arcane reasons, and it takes a knowledgeable lawyer to get it started again. Migrants have to pass background checks and file voluminous forms. In practice, most asylum seekers will wait at least 20 months before their work permit card arrives. Meanwhile, they cannot be employed legally.
With its new initiative, the Biden administration is avoiding the tortuous channel of asylum and shifting the focus to humanitarian parole. (In the immigration context, parole has to do with getting into the country, not getting out of prison.) Officials are taking advantage of rules that generally allow people who come in on a parole to apply for work permits right away, although the permit is only valid for the term of the parole.
Since October 2022, the administration created a parole program to bring in people legally from four countries in turmoil: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. A total of up to 30,000 people from those countries can come each month and stay for two years if they have a financial sponsor to support them. This year, the administration has also been granting at least 1,000 paroles each day along the southwest border to people who come through a border station with an appointment via an app called CBP One.
By June, more than 308,000 people had entered the country through those two programs, according to official records, and tens of thousands made their way to the New York region. Paroles have been created for people from Afghanistan and Ukraine. But, according to Homeland Security officials, only a fraction of migrants with those paroles have applied for work permits.
There is an even larger group who may already be eligible for permits. Hundreds of thousands of migrants were released into the country with paroles during chaotic surges across the southwest border in 2022. Some were only granted for a few months, but many were paroled for a year or even two. Migrants who have border paroles that are still valid for some time can apply for permits, Department of Homeland Security officials confirmed, a cohort that could include many thousands more people in New York and elsewhere.
For many, the news that they have long been eligible for work authorization will come, sadly, too late — since their paroles are expiring soon or already have. Among them is Juan Carlos Bello, whose one-year parole will expire in late September.
Bello would seem to have a strong case for political asylum. He was a street organizer for a political party opposed to the autocracy of President Nicolás Maduro. After clashes during an election in 2021, pro-government enforcers drove him out of his hometown and burned down his house. But even for a man who endured seven days in the dark swamps of the Darién Gap jungle between Colombia and Panama, it is taking all his stamina, savvy and prayer to keep moving forward in his legal odyssey.
“There are no words to describe the anxiety,” Bello said. Like most migrants in New York, he has taken odd jobs to pay for his own needs. He feels diminished by being unable to send money to sustain his wife and three children, including a 10-year-old daughter with a heart condition. Since leaving the shelter, he has been sleeping on a bench at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn, a gathering place for bewildered asylum seekers like him.
“Whatever honest work comes to me, I will do it,” Bello said. “No job has ever been a dishonor for me.”
‘We Couldn’t Sleep’
The community rooms at the Good Shepherd church are teeming. Under luminous stained-glass windows depicting the stations of the cross, the church set up work desks where volunteers offer basic information and help filling out reams of forms, explaining the steps along the arduous pathway to asylum. Among the new parishioners are Salomón Gutierrez and his wife Stella Ortiz, a couple from Colombia, both in their 50s, who were serial entrepreneurs in their home country not long ago.
They opened supermarkets, a clothing shop and a soft drink distribution company. Gutierrez had also been a long-haul driver of petroleum tanker trucks. But bands of demobilized guerrilla fighters, who turned to crime after a peace accord ended five decades of chronic civil warfare, extorted their businesses and hounded their teenage children, trying to recruit them. “We couldn’t sleep,” Ortiz said. “We didn’t know when they would attack our children, steal our products or come to kill us.”
Their asylum case is off to a slow start. The records of their border crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas, in March 2022 were lost in the system. In July, many weeks after they filed, they finally received their first official document, the notice that the court received their asylum claim. But that means their six-month wait for a work permit has only now begun. They fall into a gray area in asylum law, which has not recognized criminal extortion as a form of persecution. They have not yet found the smart lawyer they will need to convince an immigration judge to grant them protection.
Determined not to rely on government services, they found an apartment. To pay for it, without work authorization, they are forced — like so many others — into the underground economy. Quickly deciphering the cultural mix in Brooklyn, they purchased grocery carts and went out to sell freshly baked Mexican churros on the boardwalk in Coney Island. But without work permits, they cannot get a vendor’s license. They are constantly dodging the police. Once they get their permits, Gutierrez could try to get a commercial driver’s license, to help meet the critical demand for truck drivers. Ortiz is thinking of training for work in home health care. Eventually, they hope to apply their chops to opening another business.
In New York, despite all its troubles, they feel safe for the first time in many years. But Ortiz wants to follow the rules. “If I want to do things right,” she asks, “and work legally and pay my taxes and my own food and electric bill, why won’t you give me a work permit?”
Stalls and Backlogs
As Mayor Adams discovered, asylum is not a labor program. It is specifically configured to discourage immigrants from presenting asylum claims just to obtain work permits.
It was not always that way. In the early 1990s, asylum seekers could receive work authorization as soon as they filed their claims. Fraudulent claims surged as migrants, often prompted by unscrupulous attorneys, filed for asylum just to get the permits. With changes in 1995 and 1996, the 180-day waiting period was added. The number of new claims plunged, backlogs were reduced, and for a while, cases moved relatively smoothly.
But the impact of the waiting period waned as more migrant border crossers were fleeing from endemic violence and political upheaval, particularly in the northern triangle countries of Central America.
Former President Donald Trump was determined to dismantle the asylum system entirely. He expanded the waiting period to 365 days, although the courts voided that rule. But under Trump, work permit processing became so slow and disordered that it spawned a nationwide resistance movement. The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, the membership organization formed to fight for faster and fairer treatment by federal agencies, has grown to more than 562,000 members.
A lawsuit the project helped to bring in 2020 pushed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to comply with a requirement, written in law, that asylum work permits must be processed in 30 days. By this August, according to official data, 91% of asylum seekers’ first-time work permit applications were decided within that time frame, one of the few bright spots of efficiency in the system.
But members of ASAP, as the group is known, have also seen how quickly programs can get stalled and backlogs can build up if the agency does not have the staff and resources to meet its workload. The members have also demonstrated the life-altering impact of having work authorization — or not having it. Toward the end of the Trump administration, renewals of work permits, which are valid for two years, stacked up in the bureaucracy. Thousands of asylum seekers who had been working legally abruptly lost their jobs.
Jairo Umana, a Nicaraguan architect who was driven out of his country for opposing the repression of President Daniel Ortega, had his work permit and was making a good living in south Florida working with a roofing company. But when he filed for renewal, his new card did not arrive, with no update or explanation from the immigration agency. His roofer’s insurance lapsed; his company laid him off. His driver’s license, which was tied to his permit, expired. At the lowest moment, he did not have enough money to buy candy for his children when they went to the park.
After five months, the card appeared in the mail.
“I felt that my soul returned to my body,” Umana said. “I went back to being a person in this country.” He was rehired by the roofing company, and since then he has started his own construction business, offering a range of services beyond roofing. Five years after he arrived in the United States, Umana is still waiting for a decision on his asylum case. If he is granted protection, he said he hopes to put his architecture skills to use, hire more workers and make his business grow.
Exercise in Optimism
Recently, Mayor Adams, immigrant advocates and labor unions have urged President Biden to make more work permits available by expanding Temporary Protected Status to more migrants. The status, known as TPS, shields people who are already in the country from deportation if they come from countries afflicted by a natural disaster, armed civil conflict or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” Like parole, TPS allows people to apply for work permits immediately. The Biden administration has made aggressive use of TPS, recently extending existing protections for people from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal, Ukraine, Sudan and South Sudan. But with unlawful crossings of the southwest rising once again, worried officials are wary of creating any migration magnet.
In Congress, there are bipartisan bills to shorten the work permit waiting period to 30 days. With the partisan rancor in Washington, the measures are unlikely to advance as legislation. Lawyers and advocates on the daily battlefield of immigration have offered more pragmatic proposals. With new rules, they say, officials could simplify the application form, eliminate the stopping-and-starting asylum clock, and issue work permits valid for five years instead of two, to relieve the immigration agency of the burden of renewals.
Nilbia Coyote (she is an immigrant with a family name from Mexico, not a migrant smuggler) runs a storefront organization in the heart of Queens with the inviting name of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE. For two decades, the group has provided workforce training to successive waves of immigrants. With this year’s influx, more than 1,000 people a month are signing up to take their courses. One day in August, in a cramped classroom with subways clattering by outside, the group gave an introductory workshop in plumbing for 40 immigrants from half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries. Almost half were women, and many had never imagined they would become plumbers before they arrived in the United States.
Their attention was riveted on the Spanish-speaking instructor who displayed different wrenches, pipes and connectors and explained safety requirements as well as the many layers of licensing they would need to be well-paid plumbers in their new land. For many of the immigrants, it was an exercise in optimism, since they did not have work permits and could not go out to look for a formal plumbing job.
Coyote knows that many of the migrants who come to NICE will never get the work permits and legal status they hoped for. They will not find the resources to hang in for years with their asylum cases, or they will fail to persuade an immigration judge of their claims. Even in New York immigration courts, with among the highest asylum win rates in the nation, only 1 in 3 cases ends with a grant of asylum.
“People need to work, and they will find jobs,” Coyote said. “So we train them to know their rights, to demand protections, to have the safety education they need, so they can go home to their families every day.” For those who succeed, she said, “You need for your people to be ready in case they do get a work permit that will change their lives.”
‘We Have to Hang On’
Biden administration officials have touted the efficient processing times for first-time asylum work permits that the immigration agency has achieved in response to asylum seekers’ pressure. Until now, concern about overloading U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made officials cautious about advertising to city and state officials the work permits attached to paroles of migrants already in the country, Homeland Security officials said. The agency is chronically underfunded because it relies on fees from its services.
But with the fog of information in migrant communities, officials have no good estimate of how many people will come forward to apply for permits. If there is a crush, backlogs will build again, defeating the effort to get more migrants to work. It is also possible that people will need assistance to apply, which overstretched services providers will not be able to give. Homeland Security officials rankled Adams by insisting the city could do more to help with the permits. While asylum work permits are free, the government will charge $410 for a parole permit, a huge sum for many migrants. The paroles have also been challenged by Republicans in the courts, and officials worry that the whole program may be brought to a halt.
In New York, tensions are flaring. After a summer lull, arrivals are ticking up again, with more than 2,900 new asylum seekers registered in the last week of August. Immigrants in earlier generations, including some 470,000 who are undocumented, are asking pointed questions about why they were never welcomed by the city with the same generous services. On Staten Island, the most conservative of New York’s boroughs, chanting crowds gathered to protest when Adams opened a new shelter in a vacant school building. Even in New York, there are many residents who see the new asylum seekers as lawbreakers and freeloaders who are jumping immigration lines and overburdening local services that should be serving citizens.
Migrants also are becoming restless in their limbo state, unable to progress with resettlement. It is no secret that most asylum seekers are not waiting for work permits to go out and work. They have far-flung families to support and debts to pay to smugglers who brought them across the border. They are helping to alleviate labor shortages with off-the-books work in restaurants, and as delivery drivers, janitors and home health care workers, already creating a new generation of undocumented workers.
Relying on his friends at the Brooklyn church, Juan Carlos Bello said he remained determined to stay on the legal path, despite the delays. He regards his asylum travails as a divine test of his faith. “We have to hang on and keep moving forward,” he said.