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Advocates seek work permits for long-term undocumented immigrants in US

Immigrant advocates rally in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2024, urging President Joe Biden to grant work permits for long-term undocumented immigrants living in the United States. (Salome Ramirez/VOA Latam)
Immigrant advocates rally in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2024, urging President Joe Biden to grant work permits for long-term undocumented immigrants living in the United States. (Salome Ramirez/VOA Latam)

A growing number of immigration advocates are urging President Joe Biden to grant work permits to long-term undocumented immigrants living in the United States They say it would provide individuals with legal employment opportunities and alleviate labor shortages.

While the president has the power to grant this through an executive order, the White House has not confirmed any plans to do so.

“The Administration remains committed to ensuring those who are eligible for relief can receive it quickly and to building an immigration system that is fairer and more humane. As we have said before, the Administration is constantly evaluating possible policy options,” a White House spokesperson told VOA by email on background — sharing information without being identified.

The administration has been hesitant to address the issue of legal work for the nearly 11 million immigrants who don’t fall into available immigration categories.

“I don’t think that we have ignored the voices domestically that have spoken of the fact that we have undocumented individuals in the United States who have been undocumented and without work authorization for years and years,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters in April.

For long-term undocumented immigrants, the process to obtain a work permit legally is often complex, and in most cases, nonexistent.

The situation is different for new arrivals.

Many of the tens of thousands of migrants arriving monthly at the U.S. border are not evading the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing without authorization. Instead, they actively seek the nearest uniformed agent to surrender and initiate a formal asylum claim.

Asylum applicants with claims under review can apply for an Employment Authorization Document, also known as a work permit.

Here to Work, a coalition of dozens of migrant advocacy groups, has called on Biden to allow longtime undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — an estimated 11 million people — to apply for work permits.

Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said work permits would give undocumented workers opportunities for better jobs, higher wages and to pay “even more” taxes.

“Work permit means stability, and stability for our workforce, so that employers of all sizes can actually grow and hire more and train others. And having that economic boost that we need in this economy to keep inflation at bay and benefit everyone,” Shi said.

Undocumented workers can start businesses and use the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number for tax purposes. According to the Internal Revenue Service, ITINs are used only for filing federal tax purposes. It does not authorize someone to work in the U.S. or provide eligibility for Social Security benefits.

The Biden administration has explored implementing a "parole in place" for spouses of U.S. citizens, first reported by Reuters. Parole in place is a temporary immigration status that grants access to work permits and protection from deportation. It is estimated that 1.1 million people who are married to U.S. citizens have no legal path to a green card or citizenship.

A White House spokesperson told VOA on background that no immediate decisions have been made and declined to confirm any plans for upcoming executive orders.

Republican U.S. Senator Roger Wicker said the first step to stop unauthorized immigration is securing U.S. borders. On his website he said he opposes “policies that allow illegal immigrants to take jobs from American citizens."

Jobs report

The need for workers is real.

In a February report, Stephanie Ferguson, director of global employment policy and special initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote that the latest data show 9.5 million job openings in the U.S., but only 6.5 million unemployed workers.

“We have a lot of jobs, but not enough workers to fill them. If every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have nearly 2.4 million open jobs,” Ferguson wrote.

And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports there are 73 workers for every 100 open jobs.


The parole in place proposal or any other executive order that would allow long-term undocumented immigrants is expected to face political challenges in Washington as Republicans demand policies that would decrease migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress, however, has yet to approve any reform to current U.S. immigration law.

In recent months, the White House has reviewed other options such as using an executive order to prevent migrants from entering the U.S. at the border with Mexico if crossings surpass a certain daily number.

This idea, however, has drawn criticism from immigration advocates.