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WLRN News evaluates a key plank of the Biden administration's immigration agenda — one year later.

Migrants from some countries wait months for employment permit — while others can work right away

A worker sands a door opening to a new apartment complex
Marta Lavandier
A worker sands a door opening at a new apartment complex in Miami, Feb. 28, 2023. Many people who have come from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the Biden Administration's parole program have to wait months and months to receive work permits from the federal government.

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Tens of thousands of Afghans have been allowed to come to the U.S. since the government collapsed and the American military chaotically pulled out two years ago. And since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, more than 100,000 Ukrainians have been admitted to the U.S. under a parole program modeled after the one for Afghans.

In the wake of the emergencies in both those countries, Congress passed laws allowing Afghans and Ukrainians to work immediately when they get here, at least for 90 days. That allowed time for their applications for permanent work permits to be processed.

But last October, when the Biden Administration launched a similar humanitarian parole program to help people escape political and economic crises in Latin America and the Caribbean — there was a major difference.

READ MORE: Venezuelans call Biden's humanitarian parole their ‘best hope’ — but ‘the waiting hurts’

The automatic right to work legally in the U.S. was not extended to the 240,000-plus people who have come here over the last year under the newer parole program. It launched for Venezuelans a year ago this week, and in January, it was opened up to people from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, as well.

Given the federal government's huge backlog for processing applications, some migrants are waiting months to work legally or finding under-the-table jobs to get by. That's a stressful reality for them and the people who agreed to sponsor them and take responsibility for them financially.

More than 400,000 new arrivals in the U.S. — a number that includes migrants who have come here by all methods — have been waiting over six months to get work permits, according to the most recent federal data.

“At a minimum, we would like for the Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to have the same eligibility for work that the Afghans and Ukrainians have so that at least they can start working and hopefully can receive their employment authorization card by the time those 90 days are up,” said Cecilia Esterline, an Immigration Research Analyst at the Niskanen Center, a nonpartisan think tank in D.C.

The Department of Homeland Security told WLRN the reason Afghans and Ukranians were allowed to work without a permit for 90 days is because Congress explicitly enshrined that right in law. The newer parole program and other actions taken by the Biden Administration, by contrast, are executive actions based on interpretations of existing laws. That’s why many states, including Florida, are challenging the parole program in federal court.

One potential solution to speed up the processing, Esterline said, would be to use the same paperwork someone submits to receive humanitarian parole to double as a work authorization form. Currently, parolees must submit work permit documents separately, after arrival.

Federal officials "wouldn't have to be dealing with two separate documents for every single individual who's coming in. And that would be a great step,” she said.

That idea was highlighted and recommended in a June report from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' internal watchdog. USCIS Ombudsman Nathaniel Stiefel also argued using the same documents for humanitarian parole and work authorization would streamline the process.

READ MORE: Here's where immigrants can go for help in South Florida

The hundreds of thousands of people coming to the U.S under the humanitarian parole program is stretching the workload of USCIS staff to a breaking point, Esterline said, making it all the more important to reduce the amount of paperwork staffers process.

Parole recipients typically do not pay fees to USCIS, an agency that is funded primarily by fees, as opposed to funds directly from Congress.

“When they have this rapid expansion of humanitarian programs that they're not receiving fees for, it can be a lot of stress on the organization,” she said. “It’s great that we have these humanitarian programs, but it's difficult when we don't have the systemic infrastructure to back it up.”

The delay in issuing work permits has led to criticism of the Biden Administration even from Democratic allies, like Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York.

“Democrats and Republicans have asked me for help placing these migrants into jobs, jobs that have gone unfilled for too long,” Hochul said in an August press conference.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (right) alongside Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava in Little Haiti speaking about the Biden Administration's humanitarian parole program for Cuban, Venezuelans, Haitians and Nicaraguan. The program launched for Venezuelans in October 2022 and expanded for Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans in January of 2023.
Syra Ortiz Blanes /sortizblanes@miamiherald.com
Miami Herald
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (right) alongside Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava in Little Haiti in January 2023, speaking about the Biden Administration's humanitarian parole program for Cuban, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. The program launched for Venezuelans in October 2022 and expanded to the other countries early this year.

The state is seeing huge numbers of migrants, including people applying for asylum and some who have arrived under the parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. While the new arrivals have been unable to work and build their own futures, Hochul said they are creating a drain on New York resources.

In order to help out the state government, New York City and the overall economy, Hochul pressed the White House to fast-track the work permits.

“For me, the answer to these two crises — this humanitarian crisis and our workforce crisis — is so crystal clear and common sense: Let them get the work authorizations. Let them work legally. Let them work,” Hochul said.

Starting a new life with dignity

In September, in response to the pressure from Hochul, the Biden Administration extended Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelan nationals who got to the U.S. before July 31. Venezuelans have to apply for the status, and if they are accepted, it opens a different pathway for obtaining a work permit.

Nearly 500,000 Venezuelans could be eligible for the TPS re-designation, including more than 55,000 Venezuelans who have arrived through the humanitarian parole program since last October.

The ability to work is a vital part of starting a new life with dignity in the U.S., said Samuel Vilchez Santiago, who is Venezuelan-American and lives in Orlando. He is sponsoring an aunt and cousin from Venezuela through the humanitarian parole program. His parents are sponsoring two other cousins.

The day he spoke to WLRN, he said work permits for two of his cousins had just come in the mail — after a four-month wait.

Woman in a suit sits at a desk and talks in front of a microphone behind shelves of books.
Hans Pennink
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to reporters, June 7, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. Hochul is supporting New York City's effort to suspend a unique legal agreement that requires it to provide emergency housing to homeless people, as a large influx of migrants overwhelms the city's shelter system.

“They don't know yet. I have to call them,” he gushed. “They had been asking for about a month whether they had gotten their permit.”

The work permits would be a game changer for them, he predicted. Since receiving their permits, his cousins have now found jobs, he told WLRN.

"And now they're going to be able to also create their own path within our community, which means finding housing and finding their own ways to sustain themselves and then also grow personally and also professionally," Vilchez Santiago said.

Professionally, Vilchez Santiago works with the American Business Immigration Coalition, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. The U.S. economy clearly needs more workers, he said. As soon as everyone waiting on their work permits gets them, the better for everyone. Parolees are already filling key jobs in Florida.

“We need labor,” he said. "These are jobs that might not be the best paying, but some of them are making $15, $20 an hour in key industries like construction, hospitality and retail."

Vilchez Santiago called the humanitarian parole program a win-win-win.

It's "a win for the people being sponsored, a win for our economy, but also a win for the people who are reunifying their families through this program."

The stakes are high for migrants desperate to escape Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — and for President Biden's re-election campaign. In the WLRN News series Waiting for America, we take a deep look at a humanitarian parole program for people from crisis-torn countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — a key Biden administration immigration policy — one year later.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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