Having made New York my home for a decade, the past few months have felt strange. I felt my city swelling and stretching with the influx of newly arrived residents. After the eerie emptiness that was felt during Covid, New Yorkers have bounced back strong, relishing in-person interaction. The city feels alive and open for business once more. New Yorkers have largely welcomed those in need as individuals have been bussed in from the border. We have a lamp and a golden door after all. But what happens when the space runs out? Grumbles started as public services began to be diverted, shelters were erected in local parks, and community sports fields were converted. Political rhetoric and media amplification made it too easy to blame those poor, tired masses.
So, when the White House reached out wanting to help this city, AILA leaped at the opportunity! My fellow AILA NY members, non-profits, NGOs, and community members banded together to collaborate with the various levels of government to create and operate a clinic to expedite the processing of work permit (known by attorneys as Employment Authorization Documents or EADs) applications for those in NY shelters. It was a surreal 10 days of preparation, with the official plan being to “build the plane as we fly it” before we assisted with the first EAD application on Monday, September 25, 2023.
The pilot clinic ran for two weeks. It was whirlwind of activity: we prepared, reviewed, submitted, and processed applications, and completed biometrics, for more than 1,700 individuals living in city shelters. This was a team effort. The city and state provided office space for the clinic and scheduled appointments for individuals from the shelters. While some applicants were not immediately eligible, we were able to advise hundreds of individuals each day. With the aid of interpreters, the preparers and supervisors drafted paper versions of the I-765 application for work authorization. In addition to the documentation, we prepared a fee waiver request primarily based on the individuals temporarily living in shelters. Then our immigration attorney supervisors would conduct a final review of the application packages to ensure all the details were correct and the necessary evidence was included. The USCIS officers on site would then be able to review and process the applications into the government systems.
It was incredibly efficient to work directly alongside USCIS officers as we were able to locate missing I-94s, link previous applications, and re-use biometrics for those that had already been processed. As a result, the speed of the processing was remarkable — approximately 2-3 weeks as opposed to 5+ months and just knowing that we’d all worked together to ensure that the EAD application itself would be approved created a positive vibe felt by everyone at the clinic!
A personal highlight was assisting three families with young children, two of whom were expecting mothers soon approaching their due dates! It was uplifting to use my skillset to help those who have experienced such hardship, knowing that by processing their applications, they would have one less thing to worry about as their family grows.
Being an immigration attorney is not for everyone. You often can’t help but take on the vicarious trauma of your clients. You experience the reality of their fear, frustration, and willingness to risk everything they have known for the hope of a chance at the American Dream. Clinics such as this one, where every level of the government came together to prioritize and streamline the immigration process, give me hope for the future. Until we can get some positive and effective immigration legislation in place to meet the needs of the nation, we will keep working to help each family, one set of smiles at a time.
More information about efforts to increase access to work permits for asylum seekers is available on AILA’s Featured Issue page on Border Processing and Asylum. AILA is advocating to address the asylum work permit backlog, delays, and inefficiencies throughout the employment authorization (EAD) process. AILA is also a leading partner in the Let Asylum Seekers Work campaign.
Anyone interested in this issue can also use the following link to contact Congress about this issue: TAKE ACTION: URGE CONGRESS TO CO-SPONSOR THE ASYLUM SEEKER WORK AUTHORIZATION ACT OF 2023