Asylum-seekers’ long wait for work permits: ‘It feels terrible, especially because I’m used to working’

Most migrants must wait 150 days after filing for asylum to apply for a work permit and can’t get that until their application has been pending at least 30 days, often longer.

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Después de llegar a Chicago el 5 de mayo, Miguel Velasco (derecha) y su esposa durmieron en la estación de policía del distrito de Morgan Park antes de ser recibidos por una pareja (izquierda) de Beverly.

After arriving in Chicago on May 5, Miguel Velasco was sleeping at the Morgan Park District police station before being welcomed into the home of Mary Beth Rolak, 73, and Ralph Athey, 79, in Beverly.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Jessica Davila is ready to get to work.

In Venezuela, Davila, 40, was an administrative assistant for various companies, work she’s done since she was 18.

But like thousands of other asylum-seekers who have arrived in Chicago since last August, Davila isn’t legally allowed to work in the United States until she gets a work permit allowing her to seek employment while her asylum case is pending.

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“It feels terrible, especially because I’m used to working,” Davila said. “It is a difficult blow being here and not being able to do anything.”

Migrants have to wait at least 150 days after filing an application for asylum to apply for a work permit. And they can’t get the authorization until their application has been pending for at least 30 days, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

But it often takes much longer due to backlogs and processing delays in the immigration system.

Davila, who has been staying at a shelter at Piotrowski Park for three months, said she will soon apply for the permit. Until she gets it, though, there’s no legal way for her to earn money to pay for even toiletries or snacks for her 3-year-old daughter.

She has no idea how long the wait will be.

“It could be in one month, two months, five months. They haven’t said to me, you’ll have your permit in this amount of time,” Davila said. “I don’t see the glass half-empty but rather half-full. This is a process.”

Davila said she’s had to make do with short funds and feels like she’s disappointing her family by not being able to send even small amounts of money back home.

“You try to stretch the money, spend only on what’s necessary,” Davila said. “Sometimes, I feel bad because I want to help my family back in Venezuela, but I can’t because the work situation isn’t easy.”

Earlier this month, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and other state attorneys general sent a letter to federal Department of Homeland Security officials about the slow process, urging federal officials to expedite work permits for qualified new arrivals.

Miguel Velasco, de 40 años

Miguel Velasco, an asylum-seeker who arrived in Chicago in May, and his wife are staying with a family in Beverly. His said the wait for his work permit is frustrating.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

For Miguel Velasco, 40, a work permit will mean he can save money to bring his two boys, who are 7 and 9, to Chicago from Venezuela.

After arriving in Chicago on May 5, Velasco and his wife were sleeping at the Morgan Park District police station before being welcomed into the home of Mary Beth Rolak, 73, and Ralph Athey, 79, in Beverly.

Velasco said he’s been able to stay busy by volunteering to help with the landscaping around the home. Rolak also introduced him to neighbors who have enlisted his services to beautify their gardens or other outdoor spaces.

Velasco said he knows of others who feel as if they have no other choice but to skirt the rules and get paid under the table to earn some money to send back home, but he doesn’t want to do that.

He said the wait is frustrating, but he doesn’t want to throw away everything he’s sacrificed to make it to the United States by doing anything illegal.

“It would damage the immigration process that I’ve started, and also the company could be fined for having workers with no permits,” Velasco said. “There are some people that do it, but I prefer to wait for the right moment. I spent so much time just trying to get here that I’m not going to risk everything for something that will come in time.”

Velasco will be able to apply for a work permit next month. He plans to look for a job in construction and wants to stay in Chicago.

“The city is very comfortable, and I feel like my kids can be here in the future,” he said. “I don’t know other cities, but I feel comfortable here.”

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