New York Mayor Eric Adams, whose city is swamped by illegal immigrants, rallied with migrants Thursday to demand that the Biden administration speed up work permits so they can find jobs and get off the public dole.
The administration says the issue isn’t the pace of work permits but that migrants aren’t signing up.
After a meeting with New York state officials this week, the White House said less than 1 in 5 illegal immigrants “paroled” into the country under Biden policies had requested work permits.
The White House promised a massive public relations campaign to generate interest in legal employment.
That didn’t assuage Mr. Adams, who led a pre-Labor Day rally with hundreds of activists saying the federal government must “get on the field and fight this battle with us.”
“Let them work. Give them the opportunity to contribute to our society,” he said.
Work permits have emerged as the latest flashpoint in the deepening chaos of the U.S. immigration system under President Biden. An unprecedented number of migrants have rushed the border, and a record number have been caught and released into American communities.
Once released, the migrants spread across the country, sometimes with the help of Texas’ busing operation, to communities where they seek assistance. New York, Chicago and other liberal locales that promise housing and medical care have become particularly popular destinations.
Mr. Adams estimates that his city will spend more than $5 billion a year to care for migrants if the numbers don’t change.
That doesn’t mean he wants to stop the flow. He said he wants the country to contribute more resources to help New York sustain its generous safety net and for the work permits to help migrants leave the safety net faster.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both Democrats, have echoed the demand for work permits.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have said they support more work permits.
As it stands, illegal immigrants caught and released under Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ “parole” powers must wait six months before becoming eligible for work permits.
Ms. Hochul said Mr. Mayorkas could grant the migrants temporary protected status, making them eligible to work immediately.
After a meeting with Ms. Hochul this week, the White House said government bureaucracy isn’t the holdup.
The White House said the Department of Homeland Security has studied the catch-and-release population and found that even those eligible for jobs aren’t applying. Nationally, just 16% of those who enter under a border “parole” program have requested work permits.
The White House said the answer is to send text messages directly to unauthorized migrants in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and other languages with information about signing up. The White House also promised “teams working across several lines of effort to support eligible migrants to apply for work.”
Steven A. Camarota, a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies, said a “significant fraction” of the migrants who haven’t signed up for work permits are working illegally.
He said up to 5 million illegal immigrants without work permits held jobs before the latest border surge.
Robert Law, a former senior official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Trump administration, said government officials pushing for work permits are looking at the problem backward.
“Sanctuary jurisdictions would rather get illegal immigrants into the workforce than help Americans back into it. Shameful,” he said.
He said the incentive is perverse because many migrants agreed to pay thousands of dollars for smugglers to take them across the U.S. border, and they often still owe some or all of that fee.
With paychecks, the migrants can pay off their debts to smuggling cartels, said Mr. Law, now director of the Center for Homeland Security and Immigration at the America First Policy Institute.
Immigrant rights advocates and businesses see the migrant population as a new source of labor in a tight U.S. job market. FWD.us, an activist group funded by technology tycoons, argued in a paper last week that rural communities can repopulate their workforces with immigrants.
Mr. Camarota said one of the pitfalls of that idea is masking the decline in native-born workforce participation.
In 2000, 83.1% of U.S.-born people of working age were in the labor force. That has dropped to 77.5%, Mr. Camarota said. For the less-educated, who are most likely to compete with migrants, the rate fell from 76.5% to 67.1%.
Turning to immigrants to fill gaps in the labor force may keep the economy ticking, Mr. Camarota said, but it does nothing to help those who have slipped out of the workforce and who, according to the research, face higher rates of obesity, substance abuse and criminal entanglements.
“We face a choice,” Mr. Camarota said. “We either address the massive decline in work or we continue to bring in lots of immigrants, maybe ever-more immigrants, and then somehow come up with Band-Aids to deal with all the social pathologies to deal with these people not working.”
Mr. Adams said more than 100,000 migrants have rushed to his city during the Biden border surge.
He said the city is proud of its generous support and will continue offering it, even as it overwhelms New York’s budget.
He called the migrants “asylum seekers.”
That is true for some subset of the new arrivals fleeing persecution at home. As the mayor acknowledged, though, most of them are seeking jobs and better lifestyles than they had at home. That is not considered a valid reason for asylum under U.S. law.
At one point in Thursday’s rally, a heckler challenged Mr. Adams. The mayor called the man “one fool” and tied him to a broader anti-immigrant movement that he compared to Nazis or segregationists.
“How many people protested against your family when you wanted to come here?” Mr. Adams said.