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Cities looking to fill jobs with migrants face 9 million application backlog

Asylum seekers arrived at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan in New York City in May. The Biden administration will grant work permits to hundreds of thousands of migrants, a move welcomed by the leaders of big cities, especially New York.JUAN ARREDONDO/NYT

(Bloomberg) — A months-long backlog in processing labor permits is complicating US government efforts to help cities like New York cope with an influx of undocumented immigrants and ease worker shortages.

In an effort to alleviate some of those pressures, the Biden administration has recently announced almost 500,000 Venezuelans now qualify for temporary work permits. But a mounting logjam at the cash-strapped agency in charge of immigration now threatens that solution.

Beyond that, the slowdown could also derail the recovery in the US labor market. Foreign-born workers, who are more likely to fill positions in sectors where businesses have had the toughest time hiring, helped soften the blow of unprecedented labor shortages during the pandemic recovery while reducing pressure on wages.

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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly cited immigration as a key contributor to an overall rise in the number of available workers. Higher labor force participation and a rebound in immigration are both helping the economy, Powell said at a press conference Nov. 1. “Part of why GDP is so high is because we’re getting that supply,” he said, referring to the gross domestic product.

But immigration’s contribution to the job market is slowing fast. Foreign-born workers accounted for a little over one-quarter of the net increase in the labor force of the past year, down from more than 95 percent in the previous two years, according to unadjusted Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The survey used by BLS defines “foreign-born” as all workers born outside of the US to foreign parents regardless of immigration status or nationality. In theory, the data account for both legal and undocumented workers, although the numbers may not capture the full extent of the recent surge in border crossings.

To address the mounting migrant crisis, one initiative the Biden administration has turned to is the Temporary Protected Status program. Under TPS, migrants from 16 countries deemed unsafe by the Department of Homeland Security who are already in the US can apply for a permit granting the right to seek employment for a set period.

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As of this summer, there were close to 350,000 TPS applications awaiting processing. Most were Venezuelans who, at last count, face wait times of about 19 months. Overall, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees legal immigration, had a record backlog of almost 9 million pending applications.

That’s bound to get worse under a plan released in September by the White House that is designed to provide as many as 472,000 more Venezuelans with 18-month permits. The program expansion was a response to cities like New York that have been strained under the pressure of migrants dispatched from the southern border by states like Texas.

Mirror Lake Inn Resort & Spa in Lake Placid, New York, is one of 379 businesses that have agreed to hire migrants through a plan announced by Governor Kathy Hochul to match about 18,000 job openings in the state with applicants.

Each year during its peak summer and winter seasons, the resort brings in about 30 international students on a four-month visa. They perform a range of jobs, including housekeeping and front-desk work, for up to $20 an hour. Mirror Lake also provides them with on-site housing.

Once they leave, the resort is stretched thin.

“There are just not enough people in our local workforce to fill all the positions for all the businesses that are around here,” said Andrew Weibrecht, operation manager at Mirror Lake, who’s looking to hire 30 migrants with work authorization. “We’re just trying to think of creative ways to fill those gaps and get back to full staffing.”

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While Mirror Lake has not yet hired anyone through TPS, it has hired one asylum seeker who already resides in Lake Placid, an HR representative said.

The new TPS designation would benefit not only workers but also employers, said Cecilia Menjivar, a sociologist who studies TPS’s impact at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Extending a work permit to them assures the government that they are going to be formally active, not informally, which means they will enter formal institutions, the tax system — everything that comes with it.”

While USCIS is funded largely by fees from applicants, in recent years it has relied on congressional financial support to work through logjams after avoiding a near collapse in 2020 due to spending cuts.

"USCIS continues to apply every workforce, policy, and operational tool at its disposal to reduce TPS backlogs and processing times," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "But continued congressional support is critical to eliminate current net backlogs."

Funding issues were already contributing to higher processing times leading up to the COVID-19 era, but reduced services and fewer staff during the health-care crisis made them exponentially worse.