The economic dividend of immigration faces legal and logistical obstacles

The United States’ economic recovery from the pandemic has been stronger and longer-lasting than many experts expected, and a rebound in immigration is one of the main reasons.

The resumption of visa processing in 2021 and 2022 boosted employment, allowing foreign-born workers to fill some gaps in the workforce that persisted across industries and locations after pandemic shutdowns. Immigrants also address a longer-term need: replenishing the workforce, a key to meeting job demands as birth rates decline and older people retire.

Net migration in the year ending July 1, 2023 reached the highest level since 2017. The foreign-born now make up 18.6 percent of the workforce, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office , projects that over the next 10 years, immigration will continue. the number of American workers will plummet. Balancing job seekers and opportunities is also critical to moderating wage inflation and keeping prices in check.

International instability, economic crises, wars and natural disasters have caused a new wave of arrivals that could help close the still high gap between labor demand and job candidates. But that potential economic dividend must contend with the inflammatory politics, logistical hurdles and administrative delays the surge has created.

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

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

But many more – around 5.5 million – have been detained at borders, airports and seaports. Not everyone is allowed to stay, but a large majority of those who are receive little help from the government. Asylum seekers have faced long delays before being able to work legally, and a busing campaign by Southern governors has concentrated them in a few cities struggling to absorb 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 desperate for new members, especially given the new infrastructure available in the region.

“I would welcome them with open arms, put them up in a hotel and do everything I can to get them connected to our community, because we have the need,” Snyder said. “It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s something that, in my opinion, needs to happen.”

Immigrants have already revitalized shrinking towns and cities. Anuj Gupta runs the Welcome Center, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that was founded 20 years ago in an effort to reverse 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 people who come are looking for jobs,” Gupta said.

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

People in those categories are immediately eligible for work permits, but must still be processed. The asylum process offers the prospect of legal work, but requires waiting at least six months after applying for asylum. In 2022, it took an average of nine months to process one of these permits.

State and local governments in New York and Illinois got to work late last year to get the paperwork in place. Agencies began organizing massive document processing events to engage people and hiring fairs for those who had managed to survive. Average work permit processing times for asylum seekers and parolees are now less than a month.

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

But completing the paperwork remains a major hurdle. The number of adults crossing the border continues to exceed the number of work permit applications that have been filed. They are difficult for non-English speakers to complete without legal assistance, which is scarce, and often require fees and a consistent mailing address.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York has helped thousands with the work authorization process. It also trains immigrants for specific roles, such as babysitters, and offers safety training needed for construction jobs.

One of the beneficiaries has been Edgar Alayón.

Alayón, 32, was an accountant in Venezuela before he was fired because he did not support the Venezuelan government. He arrived in the United States in May and Texas was offering free flights to New York, where, he had heard, the city would provide him refuge.

Mr. Alayón was granted parole, but did not work until receiving his employment authorization in December. That allowed him to get construction jobs and rent a small room in an apartment.

But he only works a few days a week and his work permit is valid only until May 2025. His goal is to obtain a green card, which would ease his fear of eventual deportation and give him time to return to his country. his former profession.

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

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

And the push for work permits for newcomers has generated some resentment among the millions of undocumented immigrants who still have no path to legal employment 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 New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “I think over time it will be a positive thing and they will integrate, but in the short term it is very disruptive and people should not be indifferent about it.”

Dr. Parrott said it would help if state governments made it easier to relocate to smaller cities where more housing is available than in the big cities where Texas buses have unloaded. Some immigrants have found their way to other places, often with the help of a free bus ticket, but it is not always clear what resources and opportunities await them.

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

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

Dr. Sendil, a psychiatric researcher from Turkey, said he lost his job for political reasons in 2017. He held a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University on a research visa and then applied for asylum. Long processing times for an initial work permit forced him to delay his start as a resident physician at Rutgers.

Since that permit only lasts two years, he has already requested a renewal. But while initial work permits arrive quickly and last five years for some categories, renewals typically take 16 months, according to federal data.

That means Dr. Sendil could face another period without work authorization, which is potentially harmful to his patients and could derail his career.

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