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South Florida immigrant activists push Biden administration to approve work permits for migrants

 Activists speak outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Miramar on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2023.
Gerard Albert III
Activists speak outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Miramar on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2023.

With Congress and the Biden administration debating stricter immigration policies, a coalition of immigrant activists are urging the White House to grant work permits to a wide range of immigrants, especially those with pending U.S. residency applications.

The activists held a press conference in Miramar Wednesday morning to demand work permits for “non-DACA Dreamers, spouses of U.S. citizens, and workers who have been waiting for years.”

“There are millions of undocumented immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for years, working without permits, and are in constant fear of being detained by immigration officers,” said Guadalupe De la Cruz, Florida Program Director for American Friends Service Committee, which helped organize the press conference.

“President Biden should not forget about the undocumented migrants who have been waiting for years for an opportunity to work legally … We urge the president to expand parole, TPS (Temporary Protected Status), and DED (Deferred Enforced Departure),” she said.

Led by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization advocating for immigrants for more than a century, and the Miramar Circle of Protection coalition, the activists held their media event in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Miramar.

“Both political parties have been negligent in dehumanizing immigrants, which has only made it harder to act on behalf of those who have worked hard and contributed to society for many years,” the activists said. “Immediate action is required because of economic and humanitarian emergencies, and this administration has the authority to do more.”

Long fight for work permits

Advocates have been pushing the federal government for years on the work permit issue, but especially following the administration's decision more than a year ago to launch a humanitarian parole program to help people escape political and economic crises in Latin America and the Caribbean — and stem the flood of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Unlike Afghans or Ukrainian migrants, the automatic right to work legally in the U.S. was not extended to the 240,000-plus people who have come here over the last year under the newer administration parole program. It launched for Venezuelans in October 2022, and last January it was made available to Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans.

“We need these work permits and it is in your hands,” Bertha Sanles said, in Spanish, in talking about Biden's power in the White House. She is a Nicaraguan immigrant and member of the American Friends Service Committee.

“We urge you to act on what you believe," she said. "Don’t forget the people who have been here for years living in this country without documentation."

READ MORE: Migrants from some countries wait months for employment permit — while others can work right away

Given the federal government's huge backlog for processing applications, some migrants are waiting months to work legally or finding under-the-table jobs to get by. That's a stressful reality for them and the people who agreed to sponsor them and take responsibility for them financially.

More than 400,000 new arrivals in the U.S. — a number that includes migrants who have come here by all methods — have been waiting over six months to get work permits, according to the most recent federal data.

“We believe that every person has the right to have a decent job, to have a decent life, and for that they must have documents, a work permit, a driver's license,” said Ana Maldonado, the CEO of Golden Verita Group, which helps immigrants with their applications.

But immigrant advocates face fierce political headwinds in Washington, where the Biden administration is trying to satisfy GOP demands to reduce the historic number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border while alleviating Democrats' fears that legal immigration will be choked off with drastic measures.

Top Biden administration officials were laboring Wednesday to try to reach a last-minute deal by agreeing to Senate Republican demands to bolster U.S.-Mexico border policies to cut crossings.

The tense negotiations are tied to the president's top foreign policy priority: a $110 billion request for Ukraine, Israel and other national security needs.

 Guadalupe De la Cruz, Florida Program Director for American Friends Service Committee, speaks outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Miramar on Dec. 13, 2023.
Gerard Albert III
Guadalupe De la Cruz, Florida Program Director for American Friends Service Committee, speaks outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Miramar on Dec. 13, 2023.

Strict GOP border, immigration demands

Among the proposals being seriously discussed, according to several people familiar with the private talks, are plans to allow Homeland Security officials to stop migrants from applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border if the number of total crossings exceeds daily capacity of roughly 5,000. Some one-day totals this year have exceeded 10,000.

Also under discussion are proposals to detain people claiming asylum at the border, including families with children, potentially with electronic monitoring systems.

Negotiators are also eyeing ways to allow authorities to quickly remove migrants who have been in the United States for less than two years, even if they are far from the border. But those removals would only extend to people who either have not claimed asylum or were not approved to enter the asylum system, according to one of the people briefed on the negotiations.

The policies resemble ones that President Donald Trump's Republican administration tried to implement to cut border crossings, but many of them were successfully challenged in court. If Congress were to make them law, it would give immigration advocates very little legal ground to challenge the restrictions for those seeking asylum.

Advocates for immigrants, who are planning demonstrations across the Capitol on Wednesday, warned of a return to anti-immigrant policies and questioned whether they would even address problems at the border.

“I never would have imagined that in a moment where we have a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House we are coming to the table and proposing some of the most draconian immigration policies that there have ever been,” said Maribel Hernández Rivera, American Civil Liberties Union director of policy and government affairs.

The Senate negotiations had also found some agreement on raising the threshold for people to claim asylum in initial credible fear screenings.

Even if a deal can be struck and passed in the U.S. Senate, House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a Republican, would also need to push the legislation through his chamber, where there will likely be opposition from both parties.

Hard-line House conservatives complain the Senate proposals do not go far enough, while progressive Democrats and Hispanic lawmakers are opposed to cutting off access to asylum.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Sergio R. Bustos
Gerard Albert
Gerard Albert III is a senior journalism major at Florida International University, who flip-flopped around creative interests until being pulled away by the rush of reporting.