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Brandon Johnson sitting at table and speaking into microphone

Mayor Brandon Johnson participated Thursday in the Here to Work roundtable event, calling for work permits for long-time residents and migrants, at the Chicago Urban League.

Ashlee Rezin

Johnson to Biden: Long-term undocumented immigrants deserve work permits, too

Mayor Brandon Johnsonis ramping up the pressure on the federal government to dole out more work permits for long-term immigrants, not just recent ones from Venezuela, in a move that business leaders say would boost the economy.

On the first anniversary of Johnson’s election as mayor, he touted a letter he signed with leaders from dozens of other cities urging the president to push harder for more work permits for immigrants.

“We need the president to extend the same economic opportunities to our long-term undocumented brothers and sisters,” Johnson told a roundtable of business and immigrant advocates Thursday.

“Leading in this moment is what the people of Chicago elected me to do a year ago and I’m proud that we are doing that today,” he said at the Chicago Urban League in Bronzeville.

The letter is being signed by other mayors in the Cities For Action coalition, Johnson’s office said.

In the roundtable, business leaders emphasized the positive economic impact that would follow issuing work permits to the estimated 480,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois — 3% of the state’s population.

That includes 320,000 Mexican residents and 40,000 Black residents from Haiti, Jamaica, Nigeria and other countries, advocates said.

Work permits are regulated by the federal government, but the slow pace of their delivery has frustrated city and state officials. The federal government offered a slight reprieve last fall by expanding work permit eligibility to 11,000 migrants in the city. More than 38,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since 2022, according to the city. Many migrants say they need work permits to become independent of government-run shelters.

Politicians, business leaders and advocates sitting at tables arranged in circle

Politicians, business leaders and advocates participated in the Here to Work roundtable Thursday at the Chicago Urban League.

Ashlee Rezin

Jim Reynolds, chairman of Loop Capital and Intersect Illinois, which tries to attract businesses to the state, said one of Illinois’ struggles is population loss.

“The secret weapon here in Illinois is more workers, more documented workers with work permits, to add to the economic energy of this state. It’s a very big deal and a very big advantage if we get it right,” Reynolds said.

Teresa Labastida helps connect immigrants to services through the group Palenque LSNA, but she has been an undocumented immigrant since moving here in 1999.

“My husband and I have been working in the shadows for many, many years,” she said. “Seeing many families get their work permits very quickly made me think, ‘What about us? Have they already forgotten about us?’ … We also deserve a work permit.”

Why push for immigration overhaul now, an issue that hasn’t been addressed substantially by Congress in decades?

“The difference is today’s a new day,” Johnson said. He invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 56 years ago Thursday.

“If our ancestors would have taken this model — that somehow if you demand something that doesn’t happen that day, you should stop — we would not have the company that we have today,” he said, referring to the advocacy groups at the roundtable.

This isn’t the first time Johnson and other big-city mayors have penned letters to Biden urging more federal action on the migrant crisis. In October, Johnson and others wrote a letter seeking federal aid and more work permits. In August, Johnson and Gov. J.B. Pritzker sent a letter urging Biden to streamline the work authorization process.

Johnson said Congress and the president ideally will address immigrant reform themselves. But he’s also open to addressing work permits in the state Legislature.

“We’ve had conversations of sorts. There could be an opportunity there,” Johnson said without elaborating.

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