Newly arrived migrants living in city shelters celebrated news that the federal government will allow many Venezuelans to legally live and work in the United States — even as advocates and experts caution that relief will not be immediate.

“Now there are no excuses,” said Iker Luis Olivier, who has been living in a Midtown hotel with his wife and daughter since the family’s arrival to the United States in January. “We all have the opportunity to have working permits and find a job and don’t depend on the city.”

Iker Olivier Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The federal Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday night that the U.S. would extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to just under half a million Venezuelan migrants who have been living in the U.S. prior to July 31, a designation that grants those who crossed the border without legal documentation the right to obtain work permits and to live in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

While TPS will allow some Venezulans to skip the required 180-day waiting period before they can secure work permits, and presents a simpler application process than seeking asylum, experts caution the change in federal policy is far from an overnight solution. 

Like many parts of the nation’s backlogged and overwhelmed immigration system, TPS and the related employment authorization that might come with it can take months for applicants to secure. 

One immigrant advocacy group said it currently takes the federal government anywhere from three to nine months to issue work permits, even potentially for those who qualify for relief under the new order from President Joe Biden’s administration.

“We’re hoping it will improve but we have to await more details on the federal government’s [work permit] policy changes before we can know with greater certainty how this will play out,” said Make the Road spokesperson Daniel Altschuler.

The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a New York City based nonprofit, warns applicants to expect months of delays, and explains approvals for work permits can sometimes come through quicker via the asylum application process than with TPS. 

An estimated 40% of the more than 113,000 migrants who have arrived in the five boroughs since last year hail from the South American country, according to estimates from City Hall. While an estimated 24,000 Venezulans are currently living in city shelters, only about 15,000 of them are eligible for TPS based on the date of their arrival, according to Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams. All told 112,800 people, including 59,900 migrants were living in city shelters, through Sept. 10.

It’s unclear how many more Venezuelans living in New York, outside city shelters, might qualify for TPS if they’d arrived before the end of July. 

Advocates and Mayor Eric Adams held a rally in Lower Manhattan in August calling on the federal government to provide migrant work permits. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Olivier is one of the few new arrivals who have filed paperwork to claim asylum. Though he submitted his application in June, he was still waiting the required 150-days before filing additional paperwork to apply for a work permit. He said he was hopeful applying for TPS would allow him to work legally much more quickly.

“It’s great news,” Olivier, who was an English teacher in his home country, said.

‘Clear Out the Shelters’

The vast majority of asylum seekers have yet to begin their asylum applications, and might not be aware about the latest changes to TPS that allows them to immediately apply for a work permit.

The federal and state government have chastised city officials for delays at helping people submit their applications, a precursor to helping them get working papers so they can move out of shelters. Aiming to address this, the city opened a center this summer, where migrants can get help filling out their applications. Through Sept. 13, however, the center had helped just 3,800 people apply. 

Last week, city officials announced a “three-week sprint” to survey everyone in shelters to see if they were eligible for work permits right away under another wrinkle in federal immigration policy known as a humanitarian parole. 

Honorario González, who arrived with a first wave of Venezuelan migrants last fall, learned of the TPS changes through a reporter from THE CITY, but said he was eager to find out more. The 38-year-old is still trying to find someone to help him fill out the complicated asylum application paperwork.

“It would change everything,” if he were granted legal permission to work, he said in Spanish. “I’d be able to have everything, pay rent and pay taxes and be legal. All of us want that.”

“That’s what we want: to work,” he added. 

A migrant named Belma, left, waited outside the Roosevelt Hotel shelter after spending three nights on the street, July 28, 2023. Credit: Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said city, state, and federal workers would be coordinating in the coming days to identify Venezuelans in city shelters eligible to apply for TPS. 

We can start to clear out the shelters,” she said. “I thank the president for answering our call for help. This is an important first step.”

Mayor Adams responded with more muted praise. Speaking on CNN Thursday morning, he doubled down his insistence that migrants “will destroy New York City.”

“We’re getting 10,000 a month, and this surge may continue,” he said. “Since April, we’ve been calling for this, and I want to thank the congressional delegation, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Senator [Chuck] Schumer. But this is really moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.”

Permits for Wage Whistleblowing?

Meanwhile, New York unions and immigration advocates have also been quietly working behind the scenes to help newly arrived migrants and other undocumented workers involved in labor disputes to get legal protection and work permits under a different recent federal order.

Through rules announced by the federal DHS in January, undocumented workers who are victims of or witnesses to labor law violations can apply for immigration enforcement relief known as deferred action — and apply for a work permit, too. This includes newly arrived migrants from any country who are victims or witnesses to wage theft, workplace harassment and discrimination, workers compensation fraud, and other violations of labor law.

Undocumented workers entering the construction industry often end up in non-union work, where they are at greater risk of exploitation, severe injury or even death on the job.

Laborers’ Local 79, the construction worker union, is among the organizations helping migrants exposed to abuse on the job to secure work permits. Union head Mike Prohaska said that he hopes the rule will encourage undocumented workers to cooperate with law enforcement to expose wrongdoing.

“Undocumented workers in construction and other industries often fear retaliation from bosses, so they are hesitant to inform law enforcement agencies about abuses they face on the job,” he said. “We have seen this problem increase with the influx of new migrants and asylum seekers in New York.”

And some workers are already getting relief. Néstor Márquez has been battling a wage theft claim against a former employer in The Bronx for nearly five years, and claims he is owed more than $3,500 in lost wages.

Earlier this year, his case manager with Make the Road New York informed Márquez he was eligible for relief under the plan because of his pending wage theft claim with the state Department of Labor. He submitted the paperwork in February and, after nearly two decades in the U.S., received a legal work permit this summer.

“It feels lousy when an employer asks for your papers, and you tell them you don’t want to show them — because you don’t have them,” Márquez, who now lives in South Carolina, said in Spanish. “It feels good to be able to walk in with my head high and have the proper papers.”

Márquez joked that now that he has his work permit, he’s “not as bothered” by his lost wages, which he is still battling to recover. “If they hadn’t done that to me, I wouldn’t have my papers today.”