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Mayors ask DHS to extend migrant work permits

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A group of 43 mayors from around the country are asking the Biden administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to permanently extend work permits for migrants, citing economic concerns and shelter space.

In a letter delivered Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ur Jaddou, the mayors and county executives asked for automatic extensions for existing work permits of at least 540 days.

“Without this, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers will lose their work authorization, businesses will lose staff, and our cities and counties will face an increasing challenge to provide shelter to the public,” wrote the mayors.

Those signing the letter include New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who at times has generated ire in the immigration advocacy world for his rhetoric around migrants, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson (D) and Denver Mayor Mike Johnston (D), who’s been publicly vocal about his city’s struggles to house migrants.

“Over the past few weeks, Denver has seen record-high numbers of migrants arriving in our city, and very few have the ability to work and make a living for their families,” said Johnston. 

“This has created simultaneous humanitarian and fiscal crises for our city, forcing us to look at significant budget cuts and reduction in services. We know that the ability for migrants to work is critical to Denver’s success, and it is imperative that [the Department of Homeland Security] take immediate action to prevent even more migrants from losing their work authorization.”

The request to extend work permits comes months after the sunset of a USCIS rule from 2022 that had extended automatic renewals to last 540 days.

As of October, those automatic renewals reverted to last only 180 days, meaning some foreign nationals who renewed their work papers after the rule’s sunset will start losing their right to work legally this spring.

“Local businesses are still struggling to address the current labor shortage — and cannot handle further disruption to their operations from losing the employees they already have. A longer extension will allow immigrants to keep their jobs and businesses to operate without interruption,” wrote the mayors.

Since October, USCIS has been under pressure from elected officials, advocates and immigrants to reinstate the automatic 540-day extensions.

“New York City thrives on the diverse and dedicated contributions of these community members and stripping people of their right to work is simply un-American. I’m hopeful the federal government acts swiftly to protect the stability and security of hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers and their families,” said Adams in a statement.

In September, the agency amended its manual to allow extensions of up to five years for Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) issued to certain categories of foreign nationals, including asylum-seekers, but automatic extensions are currently limited to 180 days.

A spokesperson for USCIS did not immediately return a request for comment.

The length of EADs is important because it allows immigrants and their employers to plan ahead — six-month permits limit the kinds of jobs people can apply for — and because a series of other benefits are tied to the work permit in many jurisdictions.

“My work permit gave me access to all the things I need to live and provide for my family — a job, a driver’s license, health care, and more. It is critical that the government extend work permits for immigrants who are waiting for their applications to be processed, and are scared their work permits won’t come in time,” said Charity R., an asylum-seeker from Nigeria and member of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.

The short-term renewals also tie in to another issue dogging USCIS: application backlogs.

USCIS’s goal is to process EADs in three months on average.

According to the agency’s numbers, processing times for EADs were reduced by 32 percent between the end of fiscal 2022 and the end of fiscal 2023, from 6.8 to 4.6 months on average.

On Monday, USCIS announced it has reduced overall backlogs for the first time in more than a decade — it currently has 4.3 million cases pending that have exceeded their target processing times, compared with about five million pending cases at the end of fiscal 2022.

The mayors recognized USCIS’s efforts, in particular granting the five-year EADs to certain groups, like some recipients of Temporary Protected Status, a program that allows nationals of certain countries in crisis to live and work in the United States.

“While laudable, these actions will not help immigrants who are currently in the work permit renewal backlog and whose EADs are about to expire,” they wrote.

Those backlogs can mean long wait times without the ability to work for some migrants, and they’re made worse by accumulation of applications as short-term work permits expire.

The long waits often generate artificial deadlines for immigrants who can lose their jobs from one day to the next.

“I waited over a year for my work permit renewal application to be processed. It was scary — I was afraid every day that I would lose my job if my work permit didn’t come in time,” said Charity R.

The mayors called on USCIS to permanently implement the 540-day extensions, or at least extend 2022’s temporary rule until backlogs are sorted out.

“If DHS does not implement a permanent change to the automatic extension, any temporary extension should be for a period of no less than three years, to allow sufficient time for USCIS to work through the extensive work permit renewal backlog. We ask that you act swiftly so that the communities we represent do not experience the destabilizing effects of immigrant workers falling out of the workforce,” they wrote.