Not long ago, a weary asylum seeker named Ana arrived in Philadelphia after a long bus trip from Texas. She immediately set out to find a job but was shocked to learn that her work authorization could take up to a year. Instead of wallowing, Ana put that time to good use. She volunteered to help migrants arriving on subsequent buses, distributing literature and supplies, translating for them, sorting clothing and offering comfort.
When a colleague told me about Ana (whose name I’ve changed to protect her privacy), I wanted to shout her story from the rooftops. I’m the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that provides legal and social services to at-risk immigrants and refugees, and I see Ana’s determination and resourcefulness in so many of our asylum-seeking clients. These families have endured treacherous journeys, often with children in tow, because they are desperate to flee gang violence, collapsed economies, dried up farmlands, persecution and despots. They want a safe haven — but they also want to reclaim their lives.
And yet their drive to become self-sufficient is stymied by the federal work authorization process, which can have as much as a 180-day waiting period for eligibility and is backlogged. This prevents migrants from working, supporting their families and contributing to their local communities for many months or even up to a year.
At a moment when America urgently needs working-age people, our immigration policies have gotten more restrictive.
Congress recognizes the problem: The House and the Senate have each introduced Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Acts, which would reduce the permit waiting period to 30 days. These bills have bipartisan support. Now, our leaders must come together quickly and pass a final bill. It is the only way we’re going to give migrants a fighting chance of rebuilding their lives — and, crucially, relieve the burden on our cities.
The sooner migrants can work, the sooner they can fill labor gaps. At 3.5 percent in 2023, the unemployment rate reached the lowest level in half a century. Every industry — from healthcare, agriculture and nonprofits, to service industries like restaurants and grocery stores — is short-handed across the nation, from the border towns migrants enter through, to the cities they are bussed to. Getting migrants into these roles would help bring order to the migrant inflow and relieve our charity and municipal social service systems. It would also fuel local economies. (When newcomers make money, they spend that money and pay taxes on the money they earn.)
Migration has been viewed, repeatedly, as a challenge. This is shortsighted and out of sync with the real challenges we are facing: staffing crises in every industry, population declines, the need for innovation to address climate change, and the challenges we have been facing to our democracy. Making it harder for immigrants to integrate by withholding work authorization, driver’s licenses and delaying the right to vote — i.e. our federal and some state policies — represent the real challenge, not migration.
The stakes are high. Our birthrate is now below the rate needed to sustain a population. The mass exodus of retiring Baby Boomers has drained the talent pool across blue collar and white collar industries. Pennsylvania’s elderly population is growing 20 times faster than the state’s general population. This imbalance will drive worker shortages for a long time.
We need to find solutions — fast. But at a moment when America urgently needs working-age people, our immigration policies have gotten more restrictive. It makes no sense. Why are we making it so hard for people to come and work, drive and participate in our country’s growth and well-being?
Immigrants offer new perspectives and bring innovative solutions. They are eager to provide for their families while contributing to our economic growth and civic society. If we want to harness all the potential immigrants have to offer, Congress must swiftly pass the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act.
People like Ana want to hit the ground running. Let’s quickly get them into jobs where they can do the most good, make money and get on their feet. A more functional migration system — and the health of our workforce — depends on it.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson is the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.
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