Receiving the ability to work doesn’t magically prepare migrants for it or connect them with available jobs. Photo: Louis Hansel on Unsplash

This week, I published a report with the Center for an Urban Future that it’d been working on for a while, about what needs to happen for migrants in NYC to be able to effectively join the workforce.

The brief already points out several conclusions, so I won’t summarize them again here, but the main takeaways are that we have a lot to do to bridge the migrants’ current situation and the future of self-sustaining work that everyone agrees they need. A good chunk of the political energy has been hyper focused around the idea of getting asylum seekers work authorization, under the sensible argument that what’s keeping them in city care, and thus creating an unsustainable financial burden, is an inability to get employed.

For all of Mayor Eric Adams’ emphasis on the work issue, City Hall itself has dropped the ball when it comes to providing the legal services that could significantly accelerate migrants’ receipt of work authorization, one of a number of shortsighted responses to increasing migrant arrivals that might save a buck now but will cost ten in the long run.

Nonetheless, migrants are getting work authorizations; many have already been present since last year and are surpassing the 180-day statutory restriction on getting a work authorization post-asylum application. The Biden administration’s recent redesignation of Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status will cover some 9,300 of the more than 60,000 migrants currently in the city’s care, making them eligible almost immediately for work authorizations (though, it should be noted, in a process that will be practically far from immediate).

We have a lot to do to bridge the migrants’ current situation and the future of self-sustaining work that everyone agrees they need. Photo by sol on Unsplash.

The trouble is, there’s been precious little talk about what actually happens afterward. Receiving the ability to work doesn’t magically prepare migrants for it or connect them with available jobs. While many might already have had careers and occupations in their home countries, they might lack the certifications and retraining necessary to do that work here, and they almost certainly need English-language familiarity before they can enter most local workforces. There are all sorts of pitfalls and systems to navigate before the benefits of a work-authorized population can be realized.

That was the thrust behind the development of this report, during which I interviewed representatives from dozens of organizations that provide different pieces of the services pie to both new arrivals and longtime New Yorkers. The takeaway, in a nutshell, is that we aren’t really ready. The city’s workforce development and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs are already stretched thin and the waiting lists aren’t getting any shorter.

Without a robust set of these programs, we’re essentially waiting for migrants to figure it out on their own, which beyond gumming up the process further puts them at increased risk of exploitation. We already know that undocumented immigrants writ large are vulnerable to things like wage theft and forced overtime, on account of the fear of getting in trouble with immigration authorities and not much familiarity with their rights and protections under the law. That’s only bound to be worse with fresh arrivals who have zero experience navigating the ins and outs of life in NYC.

Ultimately, this is a broader question about the investments we’re making into dealing with this situation in the long term, and how political leaders often conceptualize spending. The expenditure on shelter space that has so worried the administration is being undertaken because the city is basically legally required to do it. As we’ve discussed before, the decades-old “right-to-shelter” consent decree forces the city to provide space to anyone who needs it (and just this week, the city was in court trying to get that settlement thrown out or modified, and to begin placing people in other localities using city housing vouchers).

The city has generally been loath to spend much more than it strictly has to, on the argument that it’s spending enough. But as with the legal services, you could make a pretty straightforward argument that any money being spent here would produce some significant returns at the back end, as more asylum seekers not only obtain work authorizations but the tools to put those work authorizations to maximum effect in what should be not a drain but a boon to the city’s economy. I was actually kind of surprised when talking to some of the service organizations about the types of investments that would move the needle. Even what were considered pricey programs might cost a few thousand dollars per individual. It’s not nothing, but it’s a tiny fraction of what we’re spending on housing alone, and a pittance in the grand scheme of the city’s over-$100 billion budget.

It seems like another case of our consistent apparent inability to take a preventive care approach to public policy programs. We all know that neglecting routine medical checkups and services often makes problems worse and more expensive in the long run — it’s the reason your insurer probably tries to incentivize you to have annual checkups — but the same principle holds true in the broader public sphere. NYCHA is a good example: the staggering almost $80 billion cost that the authority says it needs to remain viable has ballooned wildly over time in large part because the investments simply have not been made, and the buildings keep deteriorating and making the cost exponentially worse. Same could be argued for transit, or Rikers, or disease mitigation, or any number of this newsletter’s frequent hobby horses.

We’re basically terrible at dealing with issues in any way but reactively, which is one consequence of an electoral system where a lot of people aren’t really going to see the absolute impact of forward-thinking policy until the political leadership in question has left office or otherwise moved on to other things. Even ambitious roadmaps like Adams’ recently-announced housing initiative, which are looking years down the road, are often rolled out at the point that an issue has become a five-alarm fire, as NYC’s housing shortage is. Reports like mine can hopefully move things forward, but there needs to be the political will and the public endorsement to push through things that will pay dividends later.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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