José really tried to make it work in Massachusetts. He was one of the nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants lured by operatives hired by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and then sent on planes to Martha’s Vineyard unexpectedly in mid-September. After living at a Cape Cod military base, José was eventually moved into state-sponsored housing in Brockton.
Every day, José would go out in Brockton — walking or biking, thanks to a bike someone donated to him — looking for jobs, but he couldn’t find one. The 28-year-old migrant also responded to a few Help Wanted ads posted in various Facebook groups, such as “Venezolanos en Boston” and “East Boston en Español.”
“Todos me pedían papeles,” José said in Spanish during an interview, meaning that all the jobs he inquired about required work authorization, something he lacked. (The Globe is not using José's last name because he fears being identified in Venezuela, which might put his family who still lives there at risk.)
As many as 180,000 Venezuelan migrants like José have been admitted into the United States in order to apply for asylum in the past year, fleeing political repression and economic turmoil in Venezuela.
The crisis in Venezuela cries out for a political solution. But in the meantime, thousands of migrants are stuck in a legal gray area.
The Venezuelans, along with tens of thousands of other migrants from Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua, are not able to immediately obtain work permits, which puts them in a permanent state of limbo. And yet, they are desperate to work and they’re all over the country — including more than 22,000 migrants who have arrived in New York City since April and at least 11,000 who have made their way to Massachusetts, according to a recent Globe news report.
Their requests for asylum will eventually join a dysfunctional, longstanding backlogged system that has more than 750,000 pending asylum applications, according to immigration court filings compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC. That means new applicants have to wait years for a decision.
Work permits, meanwhile, require an additional step. The petitioner only becomes eligible to apply for work authorization about six months after filing the asylum application — and then must wait some more, since the processing of work permits is similarly burdened by lengthy delays.
Not surprisingly, that dynamic inevitably pushes migrants into the shadows to work illegally and get paid under the table to support themselves. They’re joining millions of other undocumented immigrants who contribute to the economy.
Naturally, the migrants’ immediate needs also include housing. The state’s shelter system is so overburdened due to the new arrivals that state authorities announced they would open a new temporary shelter and resource center in Devens next month. In coordination with the city of Salem, the administration of Governor Charlie Baker had earlier announced that vacant residential facilities at Salem State University will be converted into temporary residences to help house the influx of migrants. Baker is also asking the Legislature for $130 million in the supplemental budget to expand shelter capacity given the emergency.
But states can’t handle this by themselves. Baker has also urged the Biden administration to take action to speed up the cumbersome work permit application process. In a letter sent to federal agencies earlier this month, he made an urgent plea to “expedite and streamline the provision of work authorization to eligible new arrivals and asylum seekers.”
Indeed, the Biden administration has many policy tools to bring these new arrivals out of the shadows in a more expedient manner, including expanding eligibility for recently arrived Venezuelans and Haitians to obtain temporary protected status, the humanitarian program that is currently shielding from deportation about 300,000 immigrants from certain countries. Venezuelans who arrived to the United States prior to March 8, 2021, and Haitians who did so before May 21, 2021, are eligible to obtain TPS, a program that also allows them to get work permits. Biden should extend those dates to include the new arrivals.
Meanwhile, José, the Venezuelan migrant who was caught in DeSantis’s political stunt, decided to move to Charlotte, N.C., about a month ago after he connected with a Venezuelan friend on Facebook. Similarly, José's friend had just been admitted into the United States and told José that he was already working. “He said he could help me find a job,” José said. They’re now both working for a construction company waterproofing commercial buildings, presumably under the table. They work about 40 hours a week each for $14 an hour. They share a small room that they rented in a mobile home for $600.
Without a legitimate chance to obtain legal employment, people like José are going to keep finding illegal work. It’s a massive headache for them and a wasted opportunity for the economy. Given the current workforce shortages in different industries across the nation, the Biden administration should make speeding up work permits a priority.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.