The economic benefits of work permits

The Spanish-language media coverage of the refugee crisis in New York reveals a common denominator among immigrants: they want to work. As people seeking asylum, they wait six months, at a minimum, to be eligible to apply for a work permit. In some cases, the wait is even longer.

But if there’s one thing that those interviewed by the media have in common, it’s that no matter the vicissitudes they face, they want to work as soon as possible. That is why, in the case of New York, both Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams—along with other officials from cities and states that are absorbing refugees—have asked the federal government to expedite work permits. This is easier to ask for than to get, however, owing to the backlogs plus political considerations, among other factors.

And as we celebrate another Labor Day this coming week, it continues to be frustrating that the benefits immigration brings to the economy, and the advantage of being able to count on available workers when labor is scarce, are not recognized. Because we cannot forget that among this sea of refugees there are skilled professionals and also workers who can carry out diverse and necessary jobs.

Instead, the political and electoral debate among Republicans is focused on a false border “invasion,” criminalizing undocumented people and erroneously blaming them for the fentanyl crisis, or proposing the militarization of the border, the use of lethal force, and even invading Mexico to go after drug cartels.

These days, various reports and news stories are circulating that outline the benefits of immigrant labor to the economy, as immigrants tend to be younger and of working age. Almost 79% of people born abroad, who arrived in the United States since 2010, are between the ages of 18-64 (working age), compared to 61% of the rest of the population. They add to the Treasury by paying taxes and contribute to social programs like Medicare and Social Security, but being of working age, they cannot access those benefits immediately.

CNBC reported that there were 9 million vacant jobs, and insufficient workers to fill them, in June. With 5.8 million unemployed workers in the U.S., some economists say that all of these roles are unlikely to be filled by people currently living in the U.S,” wrote Lindsey Jacobsen of CNBC.

“You’re talking about passing up something like $1 trillion in production every year that these jobs go unfilled,” added David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute.

Also, La Opinión wrote about a report from the organization FWD.US, about how immigration would solve the depopulation and worker loss in rural parts of the United States.

“According to the brief, almost two-thirds (62%) of rural counties in the country could achieve an increase in the population of workers at working age by 2040, compared with 2000, by accepting only 100 new immigrants each year. The percentage of counties rises to 71% if they receive 200 immigrants every year,” reported the news daily.

“And more than 77% of rural counties in the country today have fewer people of working age (from 15 to 64 years) compared to two decades ago,” it added.

In other words, granting work permits to immigrants is vital in order to provide the labor that the U.S. economy urgently needs. Programs that permit the temporary legal status of immigrants, like Temporary Protected Status (TPS), are a clear example of the economic benefit of regularizing this work force. TPS not only protects its beneficiaries from deportation, but it also includes work permits.

Another report from FWD found that “TPS-eligible individuals, including current TPS holders, contribute some $22 billion in wages to the U.S. economy each year and work in more than 600,000 jobs, filling important gaps in an economy plagued by persistent labor shortages.”

The problem is that granting permits on a grand scale requires an immigration reform that has no future in the present Congress, both due to the solid Republican opposition and Democrats’ fear of taking on this topic. Fear that is demonstrated even in the timidity of the administration of Joe Biden to increase pathways for legal migration administratively, as he has done in the past for certain groups, to help the border decompress.

As always, on immigration matters the politicking and demagoguery continue to carry more weight than sensible solutions.


  • Maribel Hastings

    Maribel Hastings is a Senior Advisor and columnist at America’s Voice and America’s Voice Education Fund. A native of Puerto Rico, Maribel is a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico with a major in public communications and a history minor. She worked for La Opinión, and became La Opinión’s first Washington, D.C. correspondent in 1993. Maribel has received numerous awards, including the 2007 Media Leadership Award from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) for her coverage of the immigration debate in the U.S. Senate.

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