Op-Ed | We can do better for the migrants in New York City

The call to allow migrants to work continued on Thursday, this time coming from both immigration advocacy groups, unions, and work providers.
Photo by Dean Moses

Today’s massive influx of migrants is shining a light on a decades-long problem in New York state and city: our legal system does not efficiently or humanely address the needs of undocumented immigrants. This is true even under normal conditions – let alone these extraordinary ones – and creating band-aid solutions at the expense of smart long-term strategies only makes the situation worse for new arrivals, for longtime immigrants, and for us all.

The answer is straightforward: for all immigrants – both long-term residents and our newest New Yorkers – we must pair quick access to work permits with ethical legal counsel to help them navigate our complex immigration system in a way that will ensure their long-term stability. The faster all immigrants have legal permission to work – and by extension, to engage fully in our society – the faster they can build safer, stronger futures for themselves, their families, and their communities.

To the city’s credit, their current solution correctly identifies access to work authorization as an essential tool for achieving safety and stability, and they propose ensuring work authorization for new migrants within 180 days.

But the policy goes wrong in two ways. First, it assumes a single legal pathway – asylum, for which many new migrants may not even be eligible – without providing long-term legal representation to meet their needs. Second, it focuses only on recently arrived migrants, ignoring the thousands of undocumented immigrants already living in New York. 

Any solution created to address the current crisis must acknowledge – and solve – this pre-existing crisis as well. Many of these immigrants are here for years before they can access the legal help necessary to file for immigration status and a work permit. For many of our clients, the wait has been over 10 years since their arrival in the U.S.

As Executive Director at Her Justice – a legal services organization that advocates alongside women living in poverty as they seek safety, stability, and self-sufficiency through our civil justice system and our immigration system – I see firsthand how incredibly harmful these delays are for an immigrant population that just wants an opportunity to work and support their families and for the city and state government that must cover the cost of housing and feeding them until they can.

Our Policy Department recently completed a 5-year study with clientsthat explores the impact of legal work authorization. We found that in the years of waiting for work authorization, immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation on many levels. This includes unlicensed individuals charging thousands of dollars to file fraudulent applications that may lead to their removal from the U.S.; labor traffickers and exploitive employers who take advantage of workers without papers to extract labor and services without fair pay; and landlords charging exorbitant rents for unsafe housing conditions.

These long delays also make it nearly impossible to protect immigrants – many of them women caring for children – from abusive intimate partners who use citizenship privilege, violence, and intimidation, in part because they know their undocumented partners will be too afraid to engage with law enforcement, healthcare services, or other institutions. 

We can do better. While the use of city and state resources is an understandable concern for Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul, by investing in legal services for all immigrants, New York City can both meet the needs of our undocumented neighbors and prevent a deeper budgetary crisis, all at once. Ultimately, we welcome strategic remedies that can be put in place for all immigrants, so we can solve the problem at its root. That stability makes our entire community safer and stronger and prevents future costs and harm.