The Statue of Liberty may loom large in New York Harbor, but its welcoming message is getting lost as our city struggles to meet the demands of more than 100,000 migrants who have come to New York since spring of last year.
For more than a year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been pleading with the federal government to assist with the arrival of asylum seekers in NYC — with New York Governor Kathy Hochul adding her voice to the fight more recently. But so far they’ve little to show for it.
City and state leaders in New York agree that a critical way to mitigate the crisis is to speed up work permits for these new immigrants. But President Biden and his administration members are demurring, saying reforms are up to Congress, knowing full well that this route is a prescription for delay and dysfunction.
New York has numerous industries that have labor shortages. We’ve seen the restaurant and hospitality industry struggle to fill open positions. The home health care and nursing professions have had chronic employment challenges as well. Labor leaders are clamoring for the federal government to act because they need more workers.
New York City government is in the midst of its own staffing crisis with more than 24,000 open positions. Even if there are qualification or language barriers for many of those unfilled positions, there are no doubt jobs that a new arrival could fill.
At the same time, there are tens of thousands of migrants – eager to work — living in emergency shelters and hotels, many of whom are caught in a lengthy waiting game as they navigate applications for asylum and work permits.
Some desperate migrants are working “under the table” in the shadowy informal economy. As New York Magazine documented recently, a number of migrant women and their children are roaming our subway system trying to sell candy and chocolate to straphangers. Anyone riding the subways has seen them in plain sight.
Now’s the time for us to be the leaders we know we can be. Divisive political rhetoric is not the answer. We need to turn the arrival of migrants to New York City from a crisis into an opportunity for growth and economic revitalization.
If President Biden will not work to meet the moment by expanding and renewing Temporary Protected Status to give our newest New Yorkers immigration relief and work authorization as we continue to see conditions in the home countries of migrants deteriorate—Mayor Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul need to take matters into their own hands. They must come together to create a New York-based work authorization permit that allows migrants to work in the five boroughs and throughout the state.
The theory of the government being able to employ individuals without federal authorization was reviewed, researched and endorsed by the Center for Immigration Law and Policy out of UCLA, which found federal immigration laws do not prohibit states from hiring the undocumented.
Such a move would immediately send a message to the country and the White House that urgent reforms are needed to allow the tens of thousands of migrants arriving here to start working, earning money, paying taxes and boosting our economy.
New York can be an immigration reform leader if we are willing to be risk-takers and be bold in welcoming migrants. We need to move past the pleas for help and temporary band-aid solutions to a place where we are rolling out reforms to address a crisis that has become unmanageable. To be clear, work authorization is just one piece of the puzzle. Finding permanent housing for migrants is also critical and will require long-term planning, vision and execution. But we believe employment is an essential first step in putting people on a path toward stability and self-sufficiency.
There are thankfully plenty of advocacy and non-profit organizations that can help find migrants jobs once New York-based work permits are authorized. With workforce development partners who are resourced and supported, the city and state could create a network of training and assessment centers that determine the job skills an asylum seeker already possesses and the best employment opportunities for that individual.
There is no doubt that our new neighbors will bring value to New York. They are here to do their best work — and most importantly, they want to work.
At this point everything should be on the table. To be clear, New York-based work permits are certain to be challenged in the courts and run the risk of jeopardizing the asylum applications of recent arrivals. However, we believe that New York’s sanctuary status and its refusal to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, along with instituting other safeguards, would provide some measure of protection.
Taking a bold stand on work authorization in New York could help usher in a new wave of desperately needed immigration reforms across the country. We need Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul to say to the Biden administration: New York is not waiting for the federal government to clean up a mess it created.
Everybody knows that work permits are the logical answer. And if Washington won’t step up, New York must.
Grace Rauh is the executive director of 5BORO, a non-partisan public policy think tank. Teresa Gonzalez serves on the board of 5BORO and the New York Immigration Coalition.