Immigration’s economic dividend faces legal and logistical hurdles

The U.S. economic recovery from the pandemic has been stronger and more durable than many experts expected, and the rebound in immigration is a key reason.

A resumption of visa processing in 2021 and 2022 has boosted employment, allowing foreign-born workers to fill some holes of the workforce that persisted across all sectors and locations following pandemic shutdowns. Immigrants also fill a longer-term need: replenishing the workforce, a key part of meeting labor demand as birth rates decline and older people retire.

Net migration in the year ending July 1, 2023, reached its highest level since 2017. People born abroad now represent 18.6 percent of Workforce and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that over the next ten years, immigration will keep the number of American workers from declining. Balancing job seekers and opportunities is also key to moderating wage inflation and control prices.

International instability, economic crises, wars and natural disasters have caused a new wave of arrivals that could contribute to closing borders. gap still high between job demand and job candidates. But this potential economic dividend must contend with the incendiary policies, logistical obstacles and administrative backlogs that this push has created.

Visits to Texas on Thursday by President Biden and his likely election opponent, former President Donald J. Trump, highlight political tensions. Mr. Biden is seeking to address a border situation he recently called “chaos,” and Mr. Trump has pledged to close the gate after record numbers of people crossed the border under the Biden administration .

Since the start of fiscal year 2022, approximately 116,000 people have arrived as refugees, a status that comes with a federally funded resettlement network and immediate work eligibility. A few hundred thousand other people arriving from Ukraine and Afghanistan are entitled to similar benefits.

But many more – around 5.5 million – were apprehended at the borders and at airports and seaports. Not everyone is allowed to stay, but the vast majority of those who do receive little government assistance. Asylum seekers have had to wait a long time before they can legally work, and a crackdown by southern governors has concentrated them in a few cities that have difficulty absorbing them.

Labor needs are often greater elsewhere. Steve Snyder, business agent for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 157 in Lafayette, Indiana, and president of the city council, says his union is in desperate need of new members, especially given the new infrastructure work available in the region.

“I would welcome them with open arms, put them up in a hotel and do my best to connect them to our community, because we need it,” Mr. Snyder said. “It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s something that I think needs to happen.”

Immigrants have already revitalized declining cities. Anuj Gupta runs the Welcoming Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit founded 20 years ago with the goal of reversing population decline by attracting immigrants. “This should be as bipartisan an issue as it can be in 2024, because the economy demands it, employers want it and the individuals who are coming are looking for work,” Mr. Gupta said.

The Biden administration acted to integrate migrants into the workforce by granting temporary protected status to Venezuelans who were in the United States before July 31, 2023, a measure covering 472,000 people. It also expanded the use of humanitarian parole for people coming from countries in crisis, including Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua; The designation typically lasts two years and requires applicants to have a financial sponsor in the United States.

People in these categories are immediately eligible for a work permit, but they still need to be processed. The asylum procedure offers the prospect of legal work, but requires waiting at least six months after applying for asylum. In 2022, it took nine and a half months to process one of these permits.

State and local governments in new York And Illinois shifted gears toward the end of last year to move the paperwork forward. Agencies began hosting mass document processing events to attract people into the pipeline, and recruiting fairs for those who were successful. Median turnaround times for work permits for asylum seekers and parolees, the deadline is now less than a month.

As a result, the number of work authorizations granted to people seeking or granted asylum, refugees, and those granted temporary protection status and parole increased to more than 1.2 million in 2023, compared to around 423,000 in 2022, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

But completing administrative formalities remains a significant bottleneck. The number of adults crossing the border continues to exceed the number of work permit applications filed. It is difficult for non-English speakers to complete them without legal assistance, which is rare, and often requires a fee and a consistent mailing address.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York has assisted thousands of people with the administrative process for work authorizations. It also trains immigrants for specific roles, such as nannies, and provides safety training required for construction work.

One of the beneficiaries was Edgar Alayón.

Mr. Alayón, 32, was an accountant in Venezuela before being fired because he did not support the Venezuelan government. He arrived in the United States in May and Texas offered free flights to New York, where he said the city would provide him with shelter.

Mr. Alayón was granted parole, but did not work until receiving his work permit in December. This allowed him to find a job in construction and rent a small room in an apartment.

But he only works a few days a week and his work permit is only good until May 2025. His goal is to get a green card, which would take him away from the fear of possible deportation and give him time to return home. his former profession.

“God willing, I have to work there, I will get my residency,” Mr. Alayón said through a translator. “It would be an honor to be a citizen of this city and of the United States that offers us so many opportunities.”

But New York is not the best place to look for a job. The unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, significantly above the national average. Many positions typically held by immigrants, such as those in hotels and restaurants, never fully recovered from the pandemic. This forced people into jobs like food delivery, with low barriers to entry but high competition.

And the push to obtain work permits for new arrivals has generated some resentment among the millions of undocumented immigrants who still have no path to obtaining legal work authorization.

“You have to make sure you don’t pit them against each other,” said James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. “I think over time it will be a positive thing and they will be integrated, but in the short term it is very disruptive and people should not be blasé about it.”

Dr. Parrott said it would help if state governments made it easier to relocate to smaller towns where housing is more available than in larger cities where buses from Texas have landed. Some migrants have found their way to other places, often with a free bus ticket, but the resources and opportunities awaiting them are not always clear.

Even for those who have landed stable jobs, work permits are a temporary solution while asylum courts remain inundated with applications that now take years to process, subjecting applicants to perpetual uncertainty.

Yusuf Ali Sendil’s experience offers a glimpse of what the future might look like for millions of newcomers with precarious permission to remain in the United States.

A Turkish psychiatric researcher, Dr. Sendil said he lost his job for political reasons in 2017. He obtained a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University on a research visa, then applied for asylum. Long processing times for an initial job allowed him to delay his start as a medical resident at Rutgers.

As this permit only lasts two years, he has already requested a renewal. But even if the first work permits now arrive quickly and last five years for certain categoriesrenewals often take 16 months, according to federal data.

This means that Dr. Sendil could face another period without work authorization, which could disrupt his patients and could derail his career.

“If I don’t get it on time, I lose my job, and if I don’t complete my residency, I can’t apply for a job,” said Dr. Sendil, a member of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, which represents hundreds of people. thousands of people in similar situations. “All my colleagues are planning positions after residency, but I really can’t do that because I don’t know what’s going to happen.