Home Visa Immigration A 9 Million Backlog for American Visas Deepens the Labor Crunch

A 9 Million Backlog for American Visas Deepens the Labor Crunch

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 workers 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.

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% in the previous two years, according to unadjusted Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The survey used by BLS defines as “foreign-born” 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.

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 South 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.”

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’ 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.

For TPS specifically, USCIS backlogs surged in early 2022 after the White House first offered protected status to some 320,000 Venezuelans the year before.

Eber Corona, 25, saw crossing the US-Mexico border as the only escape from political repression of Nicolás Maduro’s government. After a few days at an immigration detention center in El Paso in October 2021, he submitted a political-asylum application, which is still pending approval two years later.

Corona, who once was a computer-engineering student, now works 12-hour shifts at a Stewart & Stevenson LLC equipment-manufacturing facility in Katy, Texas, thanks to a soon-to-expire employment authorization card. With no word on his asylum request, TPS is his only hope, he said.

“I’m still fighting my case,” Corona said. “Even though I have my work permit, my Social Security number, and my political-asylum case pending, I am still waiting for them to call me.”

The uncertainty has also impacted Jorge Urdaneta, 25. In 2020, he earned an MBA from San Ignacio University in Miami. He feared he might suffer backlash for his political activism outside Venezuela and wanted to stay in the US.

Knowing his international student visa was about to expire, he applied for TPS in the the program’s first window in 2021. Approval came more than a year later. During that time, he was not allowed to work legally.

When the White House expanded the program in September, it also announced it was extending TPS for current Venezuelan beneficiaries until 2025. The decision allowed Urdaneta to keep his job as a sales representative for Prince Distributors LLC, a kosher food-product provider in Miami.

“For those who do not have a work permit, the delays are horrible,” said Urdaneta. “Without that, you can’t move forward.”

–With assistance from <-bsp-bb-link state=””bbHref”:”bbg://people/profile/21188587″,”_id”:”0000018b-b8fa-d992-a1df-bcfebb2f0000″,”_type”:”0000016b-944a-dc2b-ab6b-d57ba1cc0000″”>Jordan Fabian-bsp-bb-link>, <-bsp-bb-link state=””bbHref”:”bbg://people/profile/21245103″,”_id”:”0000018b-b8fa-d992-a1df-bcfebb2f0001″,”_type”:”0000016b-944a-dc2b-ab6b-d57ba1cc0000″”>Ellen M Gilmer-bsp-bb-link> and <-bsp-bb-link state=””bbHref”:”bbg://people/profile/18019670″,”_id”:”0000018b-b8fa-d992-a1df-bcfebb2f0002″,”_type”:”0000016b-944a-dc2b-ab6b-d57ba1cc0000″”>Andre Tartar-bsp-bb-link>.

To contact the authors of this story:
<-bsp-bb-link state=””bbHref”:”bbg://people/profile/23606234″,”_id”:”0000018b-b8fa-d992-a1df-bcfebb310000″,”_type”:”0000016b-944a-dc2b-ab6b-d57ba1cc0000″”>Marien Lopez Medina-bsp-bb-link> in New York at [email protected]

<-bsp-bb-link state=””bbHref”:”bbg://people/profile/22307823″,”_id”:”0000018b-b8fa-d992-a1df-bcfebb320000″,”_type”:”0000016b-944a-dc2b-ab6b-d57ba1cc0000″”>Augusta Saraiva-bsp-bb-link> in New York at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
<-bsp-bb-link state=””bbHref”:”bbg://people/profile/23323600″,”_id”:”0000018b-b8fa-d992-a1df-bcfebb330000″,”_type”:”0000016b-944a-dc2b-ab6b-d57ba1cc0000″”>Siddhartha Mahanta-bsp-bb-link> at [email protected]

Ana Monteiro

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.