Op-ed | President Biden must expedite work permits amid migrant crisis

Migrant in Manhattan
File photo/Dean Moses

As union leaders and as an elected official, we see ourselves as protectors of the American Dream.

Fundamentally, our job is to ensure that everyone has a right to work and to be compensated fairly for that work. That dream is at risk if we fail to solve the multitude of challenges the migrant crisis has placed on our city’s resources and economy.

President Biden must act on the urgent requests from Mayor Adams and our federal delegation to expedite work permits. Failure to do so will tax our city’s finances beyond their breaking point, unleash a worker exploitation epidemic, and undermine wage standards for all New Yorkers.

New York City received more than 100,000 asylum seekers in the past year alone. The current rate is just too much too fast for our social services system to handle without help—and Mayor Adams has warned of the developing humanitarian crisis for months.

Yet the Biden Administration has so far failed to heed his urgent request for assistance.  Most vexingly, they have refused to drop an outdated, arbitrary rule that prevents asylum seekers from legally working for at least the first six months of their time here; and commonly much longer than that.

Such inaction perpetuates a cycle of exploitation and wage theft that has long plagued migrant workers in our industry. Barring asylum seekers from legally working won’t stop them from needing jobs, it will push them to take ones with no worker protections. 

A migrant without a work permit will have no problem finding a job with an unscrupulous employer with no regard for their safety or right to a fair wage. In fact, that story is all too common in our state. The Center for Popular Democracy has estimated that wage theft in New York State may impact 2.1 million workers, exceeding $3 billion annually.

Those with a worker permit can be organized into labor unions, giving them the tools they need to build a life as a responsible and tax-paying resident. Additionally, by providing opportunities that come with middle class wages and benefits, it will ease the burden on New York City’s budget by removing the need for significant spending on social services. It will also protect the wages of those already in a union by preventing shady contractors from driving local wages to the ground by exploiting those desperate for work.

Finally, it will allow the migrants to find work outside New York City if they so choose. 

This predicament we find ourselves in is a result of a decades-long failure by federal politics to agree on comprehensive immigration reform. Long-term Congress must fix our immigration policy by securing the border and create a clear pathway to residency or citizenship for asylum seekers and all those who enter this country legally.

We understand that many of the migrants have fled war, hunger, and danger to find a better life in the greatest country of the world. We are a compassionate city and nation. Yet, compassion alone will not put food in their stomachs, protect them from predatory employers, or safeguard wage standards that already exist. Only the Biden administration can do that by expediting worker permits. He must act immediately.

Joe Geiger is President NYC Carpenters; Mike Prohaska is President, Laborers Local 79; Joe Azzopardi is President, DC9 Painters union; Jim Mahoney is President NYC Iron Workers; and Francisco Moya is a NYC Council Member representing Queens.