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The Number of Migrants Is Not the Problem—Our Asylum System Is

America’s asylum processes keep migrants in perpetual limbo, unable to work and support themselves, after they’ve come to the United States. 

Gaby Del Valle

November 2, 2023

Newly arrived asylum seekers wait in a holding area at the Port Authority bus terminal before being sent to area shelters and hotels on in New York City in May 2023.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The numbers are staggering: More than 60,000 migrants currently reside in New York City shelters, many of which are hotels that have been converted into temporary housing to address the surge, and roughly 30,000 migrant children have enrolled in the city’s public schools this year alone. During the 2023 fiscal year, there were 2.47 million Customs and Border Protection encounters in total—meaning, instances in which migrants either presented themselves at ports of entry to ask for asylum or were caught crossing the border. Last month, the agency logged nearly 270,000 encounters along the southern border. And more people are coming. In Mexican cities just south of the border, thousands are waiting for weeks or months until appointments to petition for asylum materialize on the CBP One app. Others, sick of waiting, take their chances and cross through the river or the desert.

Democrats who previously said they’d welcome migrants with open arms have since reneged on this promise. After Texas Governor Greg Abbott started busing migrants to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions last summer, New York City Mayor Eric Adams told newly arrived migrants they’d be welcome in the city. “We got you,” Adams said at the time. “We are gonna provide the services you need.” Fourteen months and 100,000 people later, Adams has changed his tune. “This issue will destroy New York City,” Adams said this September.

To casual observers—particularly those predisposed to view migration as a problem—this may seem like simple cause-and-effect, an instance of bleeding-heart liberals’ being forced to face the consequences of their open-borders policies and realizing that there simply is not enough room for all the new arrivals. But the border, as Biden administration officials have repeated for the past two years, is not and has never been open. In fact, Biden has reintroduced Trump-era policies intended to deter migrants from making the journey to the United States. And the numbers coming out of both New York and the border don’t tell the whole story. The overwhelming majority of border encounters this year involved people who applied for entry via the CBP One app, often after long waits, just as immigration officials instructed them to do. The problem is not the number of migrants asking for asylum at the border, but rather the underlying system that keeps them in perpetual limbo after they’ve set foot in the United States.

Some demographers have warned that unless we supplement the rapidly aging US population with immigrants, there won’t be enough workers to take care of the elderly. We’re already seeing shortages of nurses and home health aides. And the problem isn’t limited to the healthcare sector. There were 9.6 million job openings across the country as of August, while the total number of unemployed people was just over 6 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While low wages undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing labor shortage, there also aren’t enough people to fill all those jobs.

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If not for the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent migrants from working legally, the hundreds of thousands of people who have recently arrived in the United States would be able to take some of those open jobs. Instead, recently arrived asylum seekers are forced to rely on assistance from local governments and nonprofit organizations—fueling the current crisis in New York City. Still, while the overall number of migrants in New York has increased relative to previous years, they are still a negligible fraction of the city’s population. The migrants in New York City’s shelter system make up less than 1 percent of the city’s overall population. Public schools may have gained 30,000 new pupils, but this is a mere fraction of the 120,000 families who left the city’s public school system since the onset of the pandemic.

Even after making it to the United States and filing an asylum application, migrants are unable to fully start new, stable lives in this country. Every step of the asylum process, from the first “credible fear” screening to the final hearing before an immigration judge, is designed to root out meritless claims—often at the expense of migrants. Government officials are trained to look for inconsistencies between asylum seekers’ initial paperwork, testimonies, and corroborating documents. As a result, asylum seekers often take their time preparing their applications—but the longer they wait to do so, the longer they’ll have to wait to find employment. Asylum seekers can’t apply for work permits until their asylum petition has been pending for at least 150 days. And since immigration cases are considered civil proceedings as opposed to criminal ones, people asking for relief from deportation aren’t entitled to free, government-appointed attorneys. In other words, unless a migrant can find pro bono representation or afford an attorney on their own—which is unlikely, since, again, asylum seekers can’t obtain work permits until after they’ve filed their initial application—they have to navigate the system on their own. And even after they’ve managed to submit their asylum application and the subsequent employment authorization request, the average asylum seeker will have to wait 16 months for their work permits to be processed, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services’s own estimates.

The Kafkaesque bureaucracy that keeps asylum seekers impoverished for months or even years on end is a fairly recent development. The mandatory six-month waiting period for employment authorization dates back to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a draconian immigration bill that imposed several new restrictions on asylum seekers, made more immigrants eligible for deportation, and expanded the use of immigration detention. The bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, had significant bipartisan support; Joe Biden was among the 97 senators who voted for it. In theory, this measure was intended to cut down on abuse of the asylum system. If asylum seekers had to wait several months to apply for a work permit, the reasoning went, people with unmeritorious claims wouldn’t apply for asylum when their real intention was to come to the United States to work. The desire to punish hypothetical people who take advantage of the asylum system has instead hurt hundreds of thousands of real people who, upon arriving in the US, learn they won’t be able to afford a lawyer or even support themselves.

There have been some recent efforts to address this backlog. In late September, the Biden administration re-designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans, granting around 400,000 people an 18-month reprieve from deportation and making them eligible for work permits. This effort was a response to New York lawmakers—including Adams, Governor Kathy Hochul, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who urged the Biden administration to provide federal funding for migrant housing efforts and to speed up processing time for work permits so asylum seekers could leave the shelter system. Venezuela had first been designated for TPS in 2021, but these protection applied only to people who entered the US before that date.

By reissuing Venezuela’s TPS designation, the Biden administration was effectively making people who arrived after the 2021 cutoff date eligible for TPS. But this move is retroactive as well; any Venezuelan who arrived after July 31 of this year won’t be eligible, and processing times for Venezuelan TPS applications currently hover around 20 months. And the redesignation came with an announcement that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would resume deportation flights to Venezuela. Moreover, TPS is, as its name states, meant to be temporary. It was created to grant people brief protection from deportation after emergencies in their country of origin: war, natural disasters, or other crises. Unlike asylum, TPS is expansive; people don’t need to prove that they were victims of persecution in order to obtain the status; they just have to have arrived in the US before the cutoff date. But it doesn’t come with any form of permanent status, and can be revoked at any time. In October, several dozen members of Congress asked Biden to reissue Nicaragua’s TPS designation, noting that the country is “facing a socio-political and humanitarian crisis that has been worsening for years.”

Biden recently asked Congress to fund a $106 billion aid package for Israel and Ukraine that also includes $13.6 billion for “border security.” Of those funds, $850 million would be used for migration and refugee assistance on the border and $1.4 billion would be distributed to states and local governments that have provided local support for migrants—but a much larger amount would be allocated towards border enforcement, with $4.4 billion being used to build new DHS facilities along the border. An undisclosed amount of funds would be used to hire 1,000 CBP officers, plus an additional 1,300 Border Patrol agents.

Stopgap measures like TPS and giving cities money to house asylum seekers are undoubtedly better than nothing, but they fall short of real, long-lasting solutions. Pairing them with funding for border enforcement, new DHS facilities and more Border Patrol agents reinforces the restrictionist logic that undergirds the immigration system: Even the smallest forms of relief must be accompanied with more enforcement.

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Shockingly, one of the most poignant criticisms of the Biden administration’s funding request came from Texas Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw. “The border has never been a money issue,” Crenshaw told the Associated Press. “It has always been a policy issue. So we need to get in a room, go to the White House and sort that out.”

But if Crenshaw gets his way, we’ll only have more of the same. Last year, he introduced a bill that would crack down on the supposedly rampant fraud within the asylum system. But if the migrant crisis in New York has revealed anything, it’s that measures to root out fraud ultimately hurt vulnerable people, including those with legitimate claims. The problem is not the number of new arrivals but the bureaucratic hoops they must jump through in order to establish lives in the United States.

Gaby Del ValleGaby Del Valle is a freelance immigration reporter who is based in Brooklyn.

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