Eduardo Palencia, joined by dozens of other Central and South American immigrants, rose before sunrise on a recent morning to wait on a Jackson Heights street corner for a job that would never come.
In 50-degree weather, the 35-year-old Venezuelan prowled the sidewalk by a 7 train stop — one of the city’s main day-laborer hubs, called “paradas” in Spanish. A friend suggested the site after days of fruitless job-hunting at local restaurants.
Wearing a Yankees cap and jacket gifted by a local church, Palencia waited until the late afternoon for a potential employer in a passing vehicle to stop. The former driver, exterminator, air-duct cleaner, and restaurant worker in Venezuela said he was willing to take whatever work he could get.
“Whatever price they’ll pay, I'll take,” said Palencia, who arrived in New York three weeks ago and has been staying in a hotel-cum-shelter in Jamaica, Queens. “The price doesn't matter as long as I get to work.” But no work came this day or the next.
Barred by federal policy from obtaining legal work permits for at least six months, and likely indefinitely, many of the more than 21,000 recently arrived asylum seekers in New York have been struggling to find work in the city’s limited under-the-table job market, according to the job seekers, advocates, and elected officials fielding their calls.
They have been flooding nonprofit worker centers with requests for jobs and training. Some are learning the hard way about wage-and-hour rights and safety protections, which are available to all workers in the U.S., regardless of immigration status. And some are doing dangerous work without adequate protective gear – all as elected officials slow-foot law changes aimed at easing the migrants’ path to legal employment.
Since elected officials from border states began busing asylum seekers to the Port Authority Bus Terminal earlier this year, staffers at immigrant worker centers say they have received dozens more calls and visits daily from migrants, many of whom are penniless. Theirs are the desperate faces of what city officials are calling a humanitarian crisis.
Big crowds at paradas
The worker centers have started waitlists for their free construction safety courses; the lists now reach into the hundreds. At paradas across the city, crowds have tripled or quadrupled, including at the Jackson Heights corner where Palencia waited. What months ago was a 50-person, mostly male crowd daily has since ballooned to as many as 150 people, with many more women in the mix.
“The last time that we felt like we were dealing with this level of crisis was during the worst of the pandemic,” said Diana Moreno, deputy director of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a worker center in Jackson Heights, where the usual monthly meeting attracts 30 people but swelled to 350 people last month. “It feels like a second time around.”
Even as “help wanted” signs hang on the windows of local restaurants, and construction vacancies abound, the newcomers may not be prepared to work, says Nik Theodore, professor of urban planning and policy at University of Illinois Chicago, who for years has studied undocumented workers in New York City and across the country.
“That’s a lot of workers to enter even a big city like New York City – without the kind of employment supports, social networks, and employer contacts necessary to make a smooth transition into the labor market.”
The influx of new migrants has strained a social safety net that was already on the brink. Most newcomers are single Venezuelan men, officials have said, with no local family or friends and few belongings. Typically, they crossed the southern border days before their arrival in New York City on free chartered buses mostly dispatched by elected officials in Texas.
More than 15,900 asylum seekers have opted to stay in the city’s homeless shelter system, which has opened 55 new emergency shelters to accommodate a record-high population. And the city has opened its first 1,000-cot migrant camp to temporarily house asylum seekers in a windy parking lot on Randall's Island.
Councilmember Gale Brewer, who has lobbied for months to secure legal jobs for asylum seekers, says work permits are the “most important issue.” Her office has received calls from Manhattan restaurants and retailers who want to offer jobs to asylum seekers, she said, adding, “If people are working, then they can get on their own feet.”
A new federal border rule is slowing the flow of new migrants coming into the U.S. – and consequently being bused to New York from border states. But that change will have little immediate impact on the job prospects of asylum seekers already here.
Meanwhile, in an undocumented labor pool already vulnerable to exploitation, some new arrivals are especially at risk, lawyers, researchers, and advocates say. Lacking English skills, local networks, and knowledge of their labor rights, some asylum seekers say they already have been victimized by wage theft.
Desperate for work, some new arrivals say they have knowingly accepted rock-bottom wages or unsafe conditions, like a lack of protective gear. Employer violence and harassment are other concerns. One woman said she shares her location with her husband on her smartphone if she gets a job, likely hired by an employer who is a stranger.
“We go with God and the Virgin,” Palencia said. “He’s the one who looks after us now.”
Federal legal barriers
Jose Primera, 29, has spent days walking the streets of New York City looking for work. That’s how he spends his weekday afternoons, after finishing his $8.50-per-hour job cleaning the Brooklyn shelter where has lived for the past month.
But the businesses Primera has visited – McDonald’s, buffets, barber shops, pet stores – all want the same document he doesn’t have: a work permit.
While awaiting an immigration judge’s verdict on their asylum claims, immigrants are granted legal permission to stay in the country for a set period of time, called “parole.” But their parole may expire before they receive – or are even eligible for – a work permit, leaving them unable to work legally.
Newcomers’ parole can range from 10 to 60 days, according to Camille Mackler, executive director of the local immigration legal coalition Immigrant ARC. But under federal rules, asylum seekers are ineligible to get a work permit until at least six months after they file their asylum application. And with immigration court backlogs and permitting delays, Mackler said they might not get one for another two-and-a-half years.
“It’s a pretty big bureaucratic hole,” she said. “It leaves people incredibly vulnerable, people who come here fleeing (difficulties in their home countries), unable to support themselves.”
The new border policy from the Biden administration will grant a special humanitarian parole to as many as 24,000 Venezuelans, making them immediately eligible to apply for a work permit. But the thousands of asylum seekers who have already arrived in New York City are stuck in limbo, with their parole already expired or soon to end – and, along with it, the possibility of a work permit and legal job anytime soon.
On Sept. 16, several City Council leaders sent a letter to Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and other members of the New York City congressional delegation, calling on them to work with federal agencies to expedite work authorizations for asylum seekers. Michael Whitesides, communications director for Councilmember Shahana Hanif, one of the letter writers, said their office still hasn’t received a response.
Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is working with other mayors, the White House, and the New York congressional delegation to expedite the work permit process for newly arrived asylum seekers, and has publicly called on the federal government to expedite the work permit process.
“From our federal partners, we need legislation that will allow these asylum seekers to legally work — now, not in six months,” Adams said when declaring a state of emergency to manage the migrant influx.
But the fate of any such legislation remains unclear.
“We've sort of been given the impression that it's a nonstarter that Congress would consider making,” City Hall staffer Tiffany Raspberry said in a briefing to local elected officials two weeks ago.
“When I talk to the members of Congress,” Brewer said, “the No. 1 issue is, nothing will be passed until after (Election Day) Nov. 8.”
When asked about potential legislation, Angelo Roefaro, a press secretary for Schumer, said his office is in “close communication” with the Adams team and working with the state congressional delegation “to secure resources and to get the Biden administration to do all it can to be helpful.”
Making hard choices
At a recent weekend construction safety course in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, many of the 40 students – overwhelmingly newly arrived Venezuelan men – hadn’t yet found jobs. A few who had exchanged stories of getting less pay than promised and working in unsafe conditions.
Jesus Marquez, 32, from Venezuela, said he received less than half of his expected week’s pay: $360 for five 11-hour days of painting cars, without a lunch break.
“Some bosses can take advantage of me now because they realize that I’m a newcomer, and I don’t have any legal work documents,” he said.
Contractors are taking advantage of the new arrivals, underpaying them, and asking them to do some of the most dangerous jobs without protective equipment – like cleaning tall buildings without harnesses – said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, which provides the training.
She said many newcomers are working at outer-borough job sites where workers are less likely to report violations and city inspectors are less likely to visit.
“They’re noticing there’s cheaper labor,” she said of the contractors. “They realize that these workers don’t ask questions, don’t negotiate their wages, are not asking for personal protective equipment.”
Construction jobs — among the nation’s deadliest and most rife with wage theft — are the most common occupation of the estimated 450,000 undocumented immigrants in New York City, according to a Center for Migration Studies analysis of 2019 Census population survey data. Other top jobs for migrants include work as home health aides, janitors, cooks, maids, and waiters.
In the Saturday class, when Guallpa explained how workers on some government building projects are entitled to prevailing rates, usually $25 an hour and more, without regard to their union or permit status, the whole room applauded.
When asked about outreach efforts to the newly arrived asylum seekers, the Department of Labor – the state agency that receives labor complaints – pointed to a new multilingual wage theft reporting system due out next year. Meanwhile, worker centers say they’re stretched too thinly to provide the knowledge and training migrants need.
Worker’s Justice Project is compiling kits for the new arrivals, including personal safety gear, such as hard hats and boots. And demand for their free six-day construction safety course, like the one offered last weekend, has exploded in recent months. Guallpa said she gets 50 to 60 calls daily from people who want a seat in one of the two 40-person trainings offered each month. She wants to add another cohort, but lacks the capacity.
“We’re not even doing outreach, they’re coming to our doors seeking support,” she said.
In the meantime, newly arrived migrants, like Robert Piña Gomez, also from Venezuela, continue to make hard choices. The 34-year-old told fellow migrants at the weekend training session that on his first day in New York, he took a job working 11 hours for $80 – money to send back home to support his three kids.
“I didn’t have the option to demand more,” he told the group. “I came here without papers, I had nothing, I was hungry. And the man said he needed someone, he needed someone for $80.”
He added, “If he said $50, I still would have gone.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name for the organization Immigrant ARC and the New Immigrant Community Empowerment center.