Legal work authorization still eludes most migrants to New York

Those eligible for Temporary Protected Status are able to work legally with relative ease compared to migrants who don’t qualify.

Dozens of migrants wait to be helped at Team TLC-NYC, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for migrants applying for work permits

Dozens of migrants wait to be helped at Team TLC-NYC, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for migrants applying for work permits Carlos Garcia

When Elianny P., 34, arrived in New York City from Venezuela in June of last year, she couldn’t work because she had to take care of her three young daughters, and she and her husband had been separated on their journey to New York. One month later, her husband, 29-year-old José P., made it to New York and joined them in the city’s shelter system. When he arrived, they could share child care responsibilities. (City & State agreed not to publish their full last names due to their immigration status.)

Within weeks, Elianny started cleaning houses, and José found work in construction – both working off the books. A few months later, they each applied for work authorization through Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This designation grants work permits to citizens from certain countries because the U.S. has determined that it is temporarily unsafe for them to return to their home nations. Elianny applied with help from the shelter where she was staying, and she got her work authorization within one month. José received his soon after. They have since moved to Tennessee, where they are both now working at a meat processing plant. 

“It was quick to get TPS,” said Elianny, in Spanish. “We were happy to get it. We started to feel more like people from here.”

Migrants in New York City, mostly from Venezuela, are getting work authorization faster through TPS. However, immigration experts, advocates and migrants themselves say a majority of New York City migrants still do not have work permits. This is in part because they come from countries not eligible for TPS. Those migrants must apply for asylum, a different application from TPS, and one where the waiting period to get work authorization is much longer. Several migrants and nonprofits working with migrants told City & State that it typically takes a year and a half from the time migrants get to New York to the time they are granted work permits through asylum. 

People waiting for their papers to be processed often work under the table, where they are more likely to be exploited. 

“Migrants coming to New York are coming from terrifying situations back home, and they are desperate to start working,” said Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC-NYC, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing and legal services to migrants. “Most of them have to wait long periods of time to get work permits, if they get them at all.”

As of last week, over 205,000 migrants had arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022, and over 65,000 migrants remain in the New York City shelter system, according to data provided by the city.

The city has helped complete nearly 57,000 applications for work authorization, TPS and asylum as of last week, according to the mayor’s office. One migrant may file multiple applications for these different federal programs. While that number keeps increasing, it represents a fraction of the total number of migrants who have arrived in the past two years. These numbers reflect how many applications have been completed with the help of the city, but the mayor’s office said they do not have data regarding how many migrants have actually been granted work permits.

Nearly 63% of asylum applications in New York City immigration courts were approved in the past fiscal year, according to reporting by Gothamist. They take an average of 597 days to be processed at New York City’s main immigration court, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a database affiliated with Syracuse University. Six months after migrants have applied for asylum, they are eligible for a work permit, while they wait to see if their asylum application is accepted or rejected. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly urged the federal government to expand work authorization for migrants, calling the push “Let them work.” Expanding and renewing TPS has been one of the Biden administration’s primary approaches to immigration policy in the face of congressional gridlock. Roughly 1.2 million noncitizen immigrants living in the US are either eligible for or receiving TPS, according to Pew Research Center. 

As of last week, some 42% of migrants in the city’s shelter system were from countries on the United States’ TPS list; 38% from Venezuela, 2% from Honduras, and 2% from Haiti. A majority of migrants accounted for by the city are not eligible for TPS and must apply for asylum. They are from countries including Ecuador (19%), Colombia (9%) and Guinea (7%), among others.

While TPS is a “fast track” to a work permit, it has several disadvantages compared to asylum. TPS is not a pathway to citizenship and must be renewed by the federal government up to every 18 months. Asylum, on the other hand, is a pathway to citizenship, and work authorizations through asylum are valid for five years. As a result, migrants eligible for TPS will often also apply for asylum. 

Migrants who come to New York are eager to start working to provide for themselves and their families. Stuck in a limbo of red tape, many resort to working without authorization.

“Many new immigrants don’t have established networks or connections to safe job opportunities in the city when they first arrive,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of Worker’s Justice Project. “So they are often forced to take jobs that are extremely unsafe, low paying and exploitative.”

José, Elianny’s husband, never knew when his check was coming when he worked in construction without work authorization. Elianny said that her husband’s employers would not pay him when they said they would. After he stopped working, it took several months to finally get the money that he was owed. 

“Lots of people will take advantage of migrants because we want to work,” Elianny added. “They know we’ll take anything.”

Pedro P., 23, also a migrant from Venezuela, got his work permit through the asylum application process. (City & State also agreed not to publish his full last name due to his immigration status.) He arrived in New York City in August 2022 on a bus from Texas and lived in the city’s shelter system for several months. He applied for asylum when he arrived because he felt that he had a good case, since he fled Venezuela because of his political opinion. Sixteen months after arriving in the city, he finally got his work permit through the asylum application.

“I was super happy to get it,” Pedro said in Spanish. “I now have access to things I didn’t have access to before.”

Several economists and immigration experts say that the city’s economy could benefit from more migrants getting work authorization. New York City Comptroller Brad Lander released a report outlining the economic benefits of welcoming immigrants in January. 

A decade ago, migrants coming across the border without visas came typically out of economic desperation, whereas now it is more common than before for people to come because of political persecution. This means they come with a range of skills, some suitable for middle class jobs.

“Those coming for political reasons are more likely to have had a decent job, or their own business in their home country,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative. “This could bode well for the U.S. and New York City economy, as they’re more likely to advance economically here.”

Pedro fits that description. In Venezuela, he learned English by the age of 11. Since getting his work permit in December, he now works as a community coordinator at a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to migrants. He said that he also has a side job as a paralegal.

Pedro P., a 23 year-old from Venezuela, lived in the city’s shelter system for several months. He received work authorization through an asylum application and now works at a nonprofit organization as a community coordinator. / Submitted

Pedro will begin his studies in political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College this fall. He has left the shelter system and now rents in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

“I want to change the world,” Pedro said. “My goal is to become a lawyer, so that I can help people who are in the same position I was in when I came to the U.S.” 

Since recently arrived migrants usually do not have work authorization, they are often competing with undocumented workers who have been in the city for longer for the same jobs. Job growth has been sluggish in sectors where undocumented workers were often employed prior to the pandemic. These sectors include construction, warehousing and retail trade. Migrants getting work authorization could spread the immigrant workforce across more sectors of the economy, according to a recent economic paper by James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policies at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. 

“Work authorization for asylum-seekers and help with English language skills will open employment prospects in other industries and relieve some of the labor market pressure,” Parrott wrote. 

When Elianny got her work permit, she said her goals for the future became a bit clearer, a bit more possible. 

“My plan is to find a good job and get ahead in life,” she told City & State before she found work in Tennessee. “I want to make enough money to be renting somewhere because I don’t want to be living in these shelters anymore.”