Major delays in the Biden administration’s issuing of work permit renewal documents to asylum-seekers in the United States have cost thousands their jobs, homes, and cars, according to an immigrant advocacy organization.
President Joe Biden came into office promising to reform the asylum system but has done nothing to rectify the situation despite the enormous cost that the hold-ups in the bureaucratic process have imposed on those who applied for refuge in the U.S. and are legally residing here.
“A lot of people are struggling beyond just their work. People are losing houses. People are losing leases. They’re losing mortgages. We have a doctor who was unable to work for almost six months in the middle of a pandemic,” said Leidy Perez-Davis, policy director for the national organization Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. “We have truckers who are not able to work not only because they don’t have a physical work permit but because their trucking license is also tied to the work permit validity period.”
One Venezuelan asylum-seeker who has been waiting 11 months for her work permit renewal agreed to speak to the Washington Examiner . The woman, Joyse Manrique, came to the U.S. on a tourist visa with her son in 2017. The government’s delay in approving and mailing her a new work permit has cost Manrique her job and health insurance, a major loss because her son has special needs and relies on insurance to cover his medical costs.
Manrique initially worked as a waitress upon arriving in Miami in 2017, putting in 14-hour workdays to cover living and daycare costs.
“I was struggling a lot,” said Manrique.
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Four months after arriving in the U.S., she applied for asylum. Migrants who illegally cross a land border into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico may seek asylum while they go through removal proceedings, but because Manrique had legal permission to enter the U.S. in 2017, her process is simpler. After one year in the country, she also applied for a U visa, which is set aside for victims of abuse or crime, because she said she was a victim of domestic violence. The work permits would allow her to earn a living while awaiting a decision in her asylum case, which can take up to five years.
At the time, guidelines rolled out by the Obama administration for obtaining a work permit as an asylum-seeker required waiting 150 days before applying. She was approved for a work permit and given a Social Security number, which made her eligible for jobs in the U.S. Manrique found a job as a systems engineer at a cybersecurity company in South Florida and was able to continue working in the field she had studied in college.
The two-year work permit expired in March 2021. Permits are extendable for another two years but require reapplication through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. However, changes that the Trump administration made to work permit rules in August 2020 “make it almost impossible” for asylum-seekers to received work permits and require applicants to wait for 365 days to apply, preventing them from earning a living above the table in that time, Perez-Davis said.
Under former President Donald Trump, the work permit application was extended from two pages to seven pages, adding to the length of time an application takes to be reviewed.
Work permits are automatically extended for six months, which allowed Manrique to stay with the company. In Rosye’s case, the six-month cutoff came in October 2021, and her company asked her to resign.
“There’s so much uncertainty,” said Manrique who added that she has sought professional help to deal with the anxiety of being out of work and caring for her son as a single mother.
ASAP, which has 250,000 current and previous asylum-seeker members, is petitioning the Biden administration to extend automatic extensions for work permits from six months to 12 months to avoid unnecessary job losses. On average, renewal applications take eight to 14 months to be approved — Manrique has waited 11 months. Perez-Davis estimated that “thousands” of ASAP members are out of work due to these delays and that far more asylum-seekers who are not members of the organization are in the same situation.
ASAP and Washington-based AsylumWorks have sued separately seeking that the court vacate the Trump-era rule that limits applications for work permits until after a period of time after applying for asylum. Last week, a federal judge ordered that the Trump rules be rescinded.
AsylumWorks founder Joan Hodges-Wu said in a statement that they are “hopeful” that USCIS will expedite the change quickly, but Perez-Davis said the logistics of what happens next remain unclear — other than that asylum-seekers soon should be able to apply for their initial work permits after 150 days rather than waiting 365 days.
Perez-Davis called on the Biden administration to provide an immediate solution for asylum-seekers such as Manrique, who did everything by the book but have lost their ability to work and are suffering financially because of hold-ups in the bureaucratic process.
Manrique said she is eligible to apply for unemployment but that her immigration lawyer advised her against it out of concern that it could negatively affect this and other future applications. Her driver’s license was rescinded last year because it is tied to her work permit. She was able to obtain a temporary license despite her lack of a work permit.
“I have to ask for a loan from a friend to cover my bills. I’ve been living off my saving the last couple of months,” said Manrique. “I just want to know when I will have the opportunity to get my papers so I can apply for a job so I can get my life back.”
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Work permits from asylum-seekers are one of 15 categories of work permit applicants affected by bureaucratic delays.
USCIS defended its handling of work permit applications in a statement shared with the Washington Examiner after initial publication.
“Agency personnel is addressing outstanding processing issues and making changes to underlying procedures to achieve new efficiencies while ensuring the integrity and security of the immigration system,” a USCIS spokesman wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.
He added that in the fiscal year 2021 the agency received 2.6 million applications for employment documents from asylum-seekers, immigrants, and temporary visitors — more than any previous year.