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migrant March 27, 2024

More than 39,000 people have arrived in Chicago since August of 2022. Some immigration advocates and business leaders are calling on the state to issue newly arrived migrants work permits, but work permits for non-U.S. citizens are regulated by federal law.

Nam Y. Huh

Can Illinois provide work permits for migrants?

Ask any of the recently arrived migrants living in city-run Chicago shelters what type of support they need most, and the answer you’ll hear is often similar: the ability to legally work. Strict eligibility requirements under U.S. immigration law have been an impediment but as political pressure mounts, Illinois could learn lessons from other states.

More than 39,000 people have arrived in Chicago since August of 2022, and more than 9,000 asylum seekers are currently staying in city-run shelters.

Without permits, they can’t legally work and without jobs they find themselves in a bind: broke, unhoused and relying on government help for food and shelter. Many migrants are desperate for money. Some are turning to the underground economy or panhandling on the streets to make some cash.

That has led immigration advocates and business leaders to join forces to urge for immigration reform at the federal level. Some of these leaders also want Illinois lawmakers to explore state solutions. But that’s not necessarily an easy task because federal immigration law regulates work permits for non-U.S. citizens.

“I can tell you that there’s been ongoing conversations about what it is that we could do, and how we can do it,” said State Rep. Dagmara Avelar, D-Bolingbrook. “What could that look like? I can’t tell you right now.”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson along with local community leaders have urged the Biden Administration to grant work permits to migrants and the estimated 480,000 long-term undocumented Illinois residents. State Rep. Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez, D-Cicero, said she is planning to introduce a joint resolution asking Biden to use his authority to grant work permit authorizations to all immigrants.

While a resolution could send a powerful message, it isn’t binding.

Jaime di Paulo, President and CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said exploring state-led solutions is the right next step.

“Businesses want employees that can help them grow their business,” di Paulo said. “They want to build wealth in the communities and the only way to do that is through employment.”

Mayor Johnson Little Village migrant shelter

Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks with reporters outside of a temporary respite center for migrants in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood last May. Johnson along with local community leaders have urged the Biden Administration to grant work permits to migrants.

Anthony Vazquez

Chicago and Illinois have spent millions of dollars in response to this humanitarian crisis. Government officials say there is an urgent need to come up with a jobs solution and push for reform because this crisis is unprecedented and unsustainable.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether there is appetite to pass state work permit legislation.

Current paths to legally employ immigrants

In response to the rapid surge of migrants trekking to the U.S. mostly from South America, the Biden administration authorized a few programs to allow some eligible asylum seekers – from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua – to live and work temporarily in the U.S. But thousands of people are excluded.

Other paths to work permits are nearly impossible to follow because in some cases they are tailored to skilled and highly-educated foreign workers, or are tied to other complicated routes to legal status including family petitions. Winning asylum can also be extremely hard.

Local advocates, experts and elected officials say future reform should come from the federal government, which has been regulating employment of foreign citizens since 1986, with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

“The federal government has many tools at its disposal to provide people work authorization very quickly, if it chooses to do so,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy (CILP) at the UCLA School of Law. “And the best example of that is what they have done with Ukrainians.”

Ukrainians are allowed in the U.S under a special parole program that allows them to get work permits and become financially sustainable.

Given the inaction in Congress on immigration, experts say states have to step up.

“We’re in a very different political time now than we were in 1986,” said Jessica Darrow, an associate instructional professor at the University of Chicago. She said city and state lawmakers need to take “bold action and try to push against federal legislation by challenging it with new policy proposals. And doing that at the state level.”

Other states have tried the difficult state work permit path

Illinois has examples to consider, even if the journey is exhausting.

Utah passed a work authorization bill similar to a guest worker program more than a decade ago. The law is stalled but it would have allowed unauthorized immigrant workers to apply for a two-year work permit after paying a fine and passing a criminal background check.

Last year, New York introduced an emergency Senate bill that creates a path to temporary work authorizations for asylum seekers living in the state, a proposal that may face legal challenges.

Illinois is considered a progressive state that welcomes immigrants, but passing measures such as driver’s licenses for noncitizens and the Trust Act, which restricts local law enforcement from participating in immigration enforcement with federal officials, hasn’t been easy.

“It took us 14 years to pass driver’s licenses,” said Fred Tsao, of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. It also took more than seven years to work on the Illinois Trust Act, he said.

Tsao said a lot more organizing on the ground needs to happen before moving forward.

“We do need to continue to work positively,” Tsao said. “But, we need to come at this with a good amount of reality checks. How much can we fully expect to happen? But also with an eye toward what opportunities are out there, what opportunities can we create?”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers immigration for WBEZ. Follow her on X @AdrianaCardMag.

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