Chicago Democrats are pushing Biden to speed up work permits for migrants. Will they succeed?

Top Illinois Democrats are pushing the Biden White House on the issue, saying the move would also address labor shortages in the state and elsewhere. But the effort is complicated and nuanced.

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U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin Gov. J.B. Pritzker Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson press conference Aug. 30 2023

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson were among those attending a news conference Wednesday, where officials and business leaders called on the Biden administration to expand work authorizations for new and longtime immigrants in hopes of addressing labor shortages in Illinois and other states.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Brandon Johnson and other Democratic leaders on Wednesday renewed their call for President Joe Biden to remedy one crisis — the labor shortage in the hospitality and other industries — by tapping potential from another: noncitizens, including the thousands of undocumented asylum-seekers arriving in Chicago by the busload almost daily from Texas.

Alongside business leaders from several sectors, including the restaurant and construction industries, Pritzker, Johnson and a handful of members of the Illinois congressional delegation — all Democrats — held a news conference urging Biden to streamline the process for new arrivals to obtain work permits.

The agenda pushed by the American Business Immigration Coalition would create a pathway for asylum-seekers — including more than 13,000 who have arrived in Chicago over the last year, with more than 1,800 of them sleeping on the floors of police stations and airports this week — to get to work in about a month. The backlog of applications has many new arrivals waiting six months or more to take a job legally.

“If after these many months asylum-seekers still are not being given permission by the federal government to support themselves with the plethora of available jobs — well, frankly, this moves from a short-term humanitarian mission to a long-term crisis,” the governor said.

Pritzker and other top Democrats were measured in their criticism of Biden, who figures to be hammered by Republicans on immigration no matter what he does heading into a reelection campaign.

Some things to know:

When it comes to work permits, not all migrants are treated the same

An application for a work permit cannot be made unless the person has an immigration status allowing work in the United States. Many of the migrants in Chicago are asylum-seekers and people who hold what is known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. People with that status are automatically eligible to apply for a work permit. An asylum-seeker from a non-TPS country will need additional months — maybe a year more. A new arrival not seeking some approved immigration status cannot apply for a work permit.

In general, TPS is granted by the Department of Homeland Security to eligible people fleeing their home country who cannot safely return. The current TPS countries are: Afghanistan; Burma (Myanmar); Cameroon; El Salvador; Ethiopia; Haiti; Honduras; Nepal; Nicaragua; Somalia; South Sudan; Sudan; Syria; Ukraine; Venezuela; and Yemen.

Why the focus on work permits

The focus is on work permits for two reasons. First, there is a labor shortage, as noted by business leaders at the news conference. There’s also tremendous pressure in Chicago to house new migrants in temporary shelters. If people can work, they will have the money to find other housing.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks at podium during press conference

Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks during a news conference Wednesday, where officials and business leaders called on the Biden administration to expand work authorizations for immigrants in hopes of addressing labor shortages.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The timetable

Federal law requires migrants to wait at least 150 days after applying for asylum to then apply for a work permit — which can’t get authorized for another 30 days.

Due to the sheer volume of new arrivals, a process that takes at least six months has left many waiting a full year before they can get to work, according to Ere Rendón of the Resurrection Project, a nonprofit that helps new arrivals navigate the system. The coalition’s proposal would shorten the wait to about a month.

“We can actually make it faster, and they’ve done it in the past,” said Rendón, pointing to the process for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients whose work permit turnaround time is only a few weeks. “It shouldn’t take more than a month.”

New arrivals vs. people working without papers for years

A major political complication when it comes to work permits has to do with equity. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia put together a July 21 letter to Biden urging the president to speed up work permits for recent migrants and also for “those who have resided in the U.S. for decades.” A sweeping move on work permits complicates matters because it sparks more GOP opposition.

Chicago folks living and working in the shadows for years by now have friends and relatives who can vote — and may not think it’s fair to give priority to the new arrivals.

The agenda pushed Wednesday would speed up the process for all eligible undocumented people.

Difficult issue for Biden White House

Speeding up work permits is a tough issue for Biden. There is a White House concern that if Biden does anything good for migrants who have made their way here, it may encourage more to just show up at the border. Republicans are making immigration a major issue heading into the 2024 elections.

Biden Democrats pressuring Biden White House

State and local Democrats have been pressuring the Biden administration for months to speed up work permits.

Pritzker dismissed the notion that immigration was dividing the president’s party.

“As Democrats, we want to get to a solution. So does the president, by the way,” Pritzker said.

“He believes that we ought to figure out a way to manage the challenge at the border — which started under the prior president, I might add, and who is exacerbating it, he and his party, with the rhetoric that they’re putting out there.”

Chicago, N.Y. Dems divided on tactics

Illinois Democrats are nuanced in their criticisms of Biden. But New York, with its own massive new migrant crisis, is getting more attention from the White House in part because New York Mayor Eric Adams has been scorching Biden for months. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is also more outspoken. On Wednesday, Hochul was meeting with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients.

“It’s a very contentious political issue, which reflects the divisions in our country and in Congress,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, who joined other Illinois Democrats at the news conference. “We’re hoping that the president has the authority to move in certain areas.”

Johnson said he had a “good conversation” with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and the two were scheduled to talk again Thursday.

White House latest on speeding work permits

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked Wednesday about Hochul’s visit and the Democratic push to increase access to work permits — and if the Biden team sees it as a solution to get people out of shelters faster.

She declined to answer, citing the Hochul meeting. Late Wednesday night, the White House said that in the Hochul meeting, “administration officials committed to launching a national campaign that’s the first of its kind — for individuals who are work-eligible but have not yet applied for work authorization — with information on how to apply for employment authorization.”

Will Congress do anything?

No. Immigration is the hottest of hot-button issues.

Durbin, Pritzker, Johnson: Let state sponsor noncitizens

On May 5, Durbin co-wrote a letter to Biden with Sen. Tammy Duckworth and 10 other colleagues askingthe president to allow “state governments to sponsor noncitizens for parole and work authorization to meet critical workforce needs.”

In an Aug. 28 letter, Johnson and Pritzker also pushed for permission for the state to sponsor noncitizens for work permits.

Use of the word “noncitizen” seems to be a workaround to avoid an argument over the treatment of new versus old migrants who need work papers.

The state sponsorship model — a new concept for the U.S. — has been used for about a decade in Canada and Australia, according to Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition. She says the idea has bipartisan appeal, with support from the Republican governors of Indiana, Oklahoma and Utah.

“It very easily translates to the long-term, undocumented immigrants who have been here,” Shi said. “It’s economically smart to also bring these people out of the shadows.”

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