The Biden administration announced Wednesday night it will grant temporary legal status to an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who are already in the United States, making them more quickly eligible to work, and additionally set more ambitious goals to speed up work authorization for all asylum seekers and grantees.
State officials welcomed the news but said it's not enough. New arrivals from Venezuela make up a small portion of families in emergency shelter in Massachusetts, according to the state. A more significant number are Haitian, fleeing ongoing violence and economic turmoil in their home country.
“We are grateful to Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas and his team at the Department of Homeland Security for these new commitments, but more needs to be done,” said Karissa Hand, the spokesperson for Gov. Maura Healey. “We continue to advocate for additional federal funding, expedited work permits, and extended Temporary Protected Status for Haitian families.”
With over 22,000 people in the state emergency shelter system, and roughly half being immigrant families, Healey, advocates and legislators have pressed Congress and Homeland Security to act with more funds, expediting work authorization, and cutting backlogs.
For the Venezuelans coming to Massachusetts, the newly announced extension will give them eligibility if they arrived before July 31 of this year, as a result of “Venezuela’s increased instability and lack of safety due to the enduring humanitarian, security, political, and environmental conditions.”
One group of Venezuelans that could benefit are the dozens of immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last year in a political stunt. Many of them have applied for other types of visas and asylum, but could also now apply for Temporary Protected Status.
Attorney Rachel Self, who works with many of the 49 migrants, said she’s recommending they apply to this new status.
“One of the beautiful things about this is: the delays and backlogs in both our asylum system and our U-Visa adjudications will no longer be as large a concern," she said. "This TPS designation will provide a bridge until those other applications can be adjudicated.”
But Haitians arriving this year and in the future are still in limbo. Last year, the Biden administration allowed Haitians residing in the United States before Nov. 6, 2022, to apply for temporary status. But newer arrivals haven’t been able to and instead apply for asylum, which takes much longer to be adjudicated and granted.
The Biden administration also said, starting Oct. 1, it will accelerate work authorization process times for immigrants who arrived in the United States through other bureaucratic avenues. That includes those who seek asylum through a mobile app for appointments at the southern border with Mexico — called CBP One — while they are in Central America or Mexico. Additionally Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans in their home countries who seek humanitarian parole, another immigration protection, could see expedited work permit times dropping from 90 days to 30.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Robin Nice, New England Chapter chair for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Really, it's oftentimes an instance of stealing from Peter to pay Paul where ... I get some work permit applications or renewals approved within seven days, and then I have other ones waiting eight months.”
The International Institute of New England has worked with thousands of newly arrived migrants, getting them situated with housing, social services and applying for work permits.
“Any improvement upon processing times is huge for immigrants and refugees in the commonwealth,” said Chiara St. Pierre, the organization’s senior director of immigration legal services. “I think it’s forward momentum. I think it’s a good start. Is there always more to be done? Of course.”
That would include speeding up work permits for asylum seekers, which the changes will not do. Under a law passed by Congress many years ago, asylum seekers must wait six months to receive a work permit. That doesn't include the time it takes to begin an asylum application, which is required to be submitted before starting the work permit process. Backlogs mean applicants often are waiting much longer, an urgent problem in the eyes of the Healey administration, which wants to see immigrants able to work and save up funds for their own housing.
But now, once they do get a work permit, those permits will be good for five years — instead of two — without having to renew, a process with even more massive backlogs.
“The update about work permits being valid for five years is, frankly, really huge,” said Nice.
Immigrant Family Services Institute, based in Boston, has increasingly worked with Haitian new arrivals in the past year and a half.
“We've been working very hard with all of the advocates every day, calling on them to say enough is enough, it's taking way too long. Some people are waiting for a year or two years even [for work permits],” said Geralde Gabeau, the institute’s executive director.
“We still have people who applied for TPS last year and still have not seen their work authorization. So it varies between anything from two years all the way to probably six months,” she said.
Despite not knowing how long work permits will take, Gabeau welcomes the change announced Wednesday as “one of the biggest news of the year” — as long as it is implemented correctly. She said extending Haiti’s designation for Temporary Protected Status is also something that needs to happen.
State Sen. Marc Pacheco, dean of the Massachusetts Senate, thinks that work authorization needs to be more “immediate” for migrants, citing staffing shortages around the state. He held a press conference and released a letter to Congress and the Biden administration from himself and 64 other state legislators on the issue.
"Comprehensive immigration reform is urgently needed to address domestic workforce shortages and establish a functional system for processing entrants to the United States," the letter said.
He pointed to data from the United States Chamber of Commerce, which said Massachusetts currently has 92,049 workers available for 243,000 vacant jobs and only 47 workers available for every 100 openings.