“When we force people to rely on public handouts, we not only harm their perception of what makes America great, but undermine the important truth that when people come here, they want to work.”

Help Wanted sign

Jeanmarie Evelly

A help wanted flier in Brooklyn.

I came to New York five years ago from Venezuela. I used to run a nonprofit helping political prisoners, and then the government asked me to go to court. Knowing the experience of many of the people I had helped, I realized what that meant.

I had been outspoken about the dictatorship in my country, and they wanted to put me in prison. It’s a universal human reaction to say, “I don’t want to be a political prisoner in a Venezuelan prison.” Particularly if like me you had seen the conditions inside and knew how they would treat you. That’s when I filed my asylum claim in the United States.

Now I live in New Jersey where I had to start from nothing. The hardest thing of all was that I wasn’t allowed to work. Because of a statutory requirement that asylum seekers wait 180 days for a work permit, it was six months before I was granted work authorization.

That was a very challenging time. Because I couldn’t legally work, I had to rely on government support. Some people told me I should get a fake identification or skirt the law, but I knew that wasn’t the right choice. I am lucky I didn’t end up in an exploitative situation. All I wanted was  to work, but the law did not allow it. 

Now I work for an organization in Manhattan helping other people who come here like I did half a decade ago. I’ve been able to stitch a life together here in America. But it is un-American to deny asylum seekers the right to work when they first arrive. When we force people to rely on public handouts, we not only harm their perception of what makes America great, but undermine the important truth that when people come here, they want to work.

This 180-day waiting requirement is especially misguided considering so many businesses here are struggling to hire the labor they need to thrive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there are 9.6 million job openings, with only 6.5 million people looking for work.

This policy is a missed economic opportunity. But it is doing real harm to people seeking safety and our new communities. New York promised in a 1980s legal settlement to provide shelter to everyone who needs it. That promise was never intended to offer housing to people seeking safety who are denied the ability to work and provide for their families when they first arrive here. But that’s what we’ve come to. And we’ve started kicking people out of those shelters after 60 days. But they can’t work so they can’t make rent.

There is some hope, though. The bipartisan Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act in Congress  would allow asylum seekers the right to work after 30 days while their asylum application is processed. With many states facing workforce shortages, it’s no surprise the bill has support from faith leaders, local elected officials, including the Mayor of Boston, and business groups across the country who’ve come together with a national #LetAsylumSeekersWork campaign to amplify this call.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the bill and said it would be “a good start” to making “meaningful progress to secure America’s borders and modernize the broken immigration system.” More than 100 business organizations have also written a letter to Congress calling on a resolution to this issue.

Nobody is saying that the solution to our asylum crisis is simple—as debates about the border in Congress currently show. But this is an important first step. It’s a win-win-win for people like me, our new communities, and our economy as a whole.  

Andreina Zuluaga is the Refugee Congress Delegate for New Jersey.