The recent influx of migrants into New York City has highlighted the barriers that these new arrivals face, including the limitations on their ability to work. In a new episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute Nathan Fellow Sarah Rogerson, an expert in immigration law and director of the Immigration Law Clinic and Edward P. Swyer Justice Center at Albany Law School, discusses the legal and logistical hurdles migrants face as they seek to enter the workforce, including federal restrictions that prohibit migrants from working for at least six months, the time, money, and effort work authorization applications require, and the systemic constraints that can delay work authorization and legal residency status.


Sarah Rogerson, Nathan fellow, Rockefeller Institute & director of the Immigration Law Clinic and Edward P. Swyer Justice Center, Albany Law School

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse  00:02

    Hi and welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m your host, Alex Morse. The recent influx of migrants into New York City has shone a spotlight on the barriers that these new arrivals face, including the limitations on their ability to work. In today’s episode, I’m joined by an expert in immigration law, Sarah Rogerson, Nathan fellow for the Rockefeller Institute, and director of the Immigration Law Clinic and director of the Edward P. Swyer Justice Center at Albany Law School, to discuss the many challenges migrants face, including the federal restrictions that prohibit migrants from working for at least six months, the time, money and effort work authorization applications require, and the systemic constraints that can delay work authorization and legal residency status, further straining a migrants ability to fully integrate and pursue a brighter future. Sarah and I discuss how migrants are currently navigating these challenges, and what possible policy solutions could help aid this humantiarian crisis. And just a quick note before we begin, this conversation was recorded July 19. Hope you enjoy.

    Alexander Morse  01:28

    Sarah, thank you so much for joining the podcast today.

    Sarah Rogerson  01:31

    Thanks for having me.

    Alexander Morse  01:32

    So we’re here to talk about what’s been in the news recently with the relocation of migrants into New York City and then subsequently being relocated into upstate New York. And so I was hoping you could please provide an overview of the current relocation efforts. And some of the reasons maybe behind why they’re being relocated to upstate New York, and what the estimated number of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers there are.

    Sarah Rogerson  01:57

    Sure. So it’s important to note that this is been driven primarily by Governor Abbott in Texas, who has taken upon himself to relocate migrants who are arriving at our southern border. So the vast majority, as I understand it, of people who are arriving in New York City, are being sent by Governor Abbott from Texas. And so New York is in a deep predicament because this isn’t happening in a coordinated fashion or with federal systems and supports and structures. So it’s an informal humanitarian crisis. New York City is the initial point where these folks are being sent. And so then, once New York City hit a certain capacity limit, and their shelter system and and their services system, they decided to relocate people to upstate communities. And in the Capital District, we’ve seen individuals relocated to Albany and Schenectady County. And what happened in the interim was a lot of other counties that are not favorable environments for immigrants, issued a lot of executive orders or took measures to send the message to New York City that they would not be welcoming communities. And so the vast majority of these folks have been sent to Albany and Schenectady, the capital district area. Some individuals have been sent to Erie County, there are logistical challenges and getting from New York City to Erie County that are lessened by, you know, a shorter bus ride to the capital district. So we now have almost 600 People in the capital district that have been riding on buses from New York City since Memorial Day weekend. And those buses continue to arrive with very little notice and very little coordination or communication. So that’s where it stands at the moment. There are also issues with folks being able to access basic services and employment in order to become self sufficient, and that is primarily because of federal rules that restrict asylum seekers, which is what these folks are. Undocumented, but legally seeking asylum status here in the United States. And until they file their asylum application they are not eligible to work under federal immigration law.

    Alexander Morse  04:33

    It’s an ever developing situation that a lot of municipalities are kind of flying by the seat of their pants trying to take on an influx of migrants while also navigating some of these social services. And migrants themselves are facing a lot of barriers. And so I wanted to focus a little bit on some of those work related issues. We mentioned that there’s federal prohibitions for work status for migrants. And so what are these refugee seekers, asylum seekers doing in response, you know, what are some of the industries that they’re trying to obtain jobs at?

    Sarah Rogerson  05:06

    We have no information about whether how or where immigrant workers are finding employment in spite of the lack of work authorization. But we do know, from historical data, that there are several top industries that attract immigrant workers generally, typically, we have seen trends where undocumented immigrants are finding work outside of work authorization in the hospitality industry, the food service industry, agriculture, construction, health care. And of course, in upstate New York, we have a general labor shortage altogether. So, you know, not a week goes by that we’re not contacted by prospective employers saying, we would love to hire people, we would like to put put folks to work. And there is this barrier in between the people who want to work and desperately need to work in order to survive, and the people that want to employ them, because under federal law, that’s not permitted until the federal government says it’s okay.

    Alexander Morse  06:10

    And how does that happen under current practices?

    Sarah Rogerson  06:12

    The only way that that happens for asylum seeking individuals is that they file the asylum application, which includes 1000s, and 1000s, and 1000s of pages of documentation. It’s a very complicated, long, difficult process. And so even just putting the initial application together can take months. And only after they have filed that asylum application with all the other forms that the federal government requires, then they have to wait 150 days to even request work authorization by filing a separate application in most cases. And then they aren’t promised that they will receive that application for consideration of their application until 180 days have passed. And there’s such a tremendous backlog with a lot of different areas of immigration for lots of different reasons that people run over that time.

    Alexander Morse  07:07

    So about six months

    Sarah Rogerson  07:08

    It definitely takes at least six months if everything was very fast and easy to do. But given that all these applications are tremendously difficult, we’re talking about people waiting a year to a year and a half where they are eligible or given permission from the federal government to seek employment.

    Alexander Morse  07:29

    Looking at some of these barriers that exist for asylum seekers to get legal authorization to live here and work here. I’m curious, are these forms these really in depth applications, are they provided in their native language? Or is it another hurdle that migrant need to obtain a translator to help complete these forms?

    Sarah Rogerson  07:49

    I’m so glad you asked that question. It is definitely a hurdle because even if the forms are available in other languages, they need to be submitted to the federal government in English. So every single supporting documentation has to be translated into English with a certificate of translation attached by the interpreter, often notarized. I can’t remember the the latest rule about notaries, notarized certificates of translation, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years. And the rules keep changing. And in my very first case, in in law school was an asylum law case. And that was 20 years ago. So each piece of paper that is sent to the federal government has to be translated into English. And all of the applicants who fill out these applications are also swearing that the contents of these applications are true. In order to do that they have to have interpretation available and translation support while they’re being walked through the form. And then at the end, it’s a best practice for lawyers who are taking this seriously to read through the application with their client in full front to back and, you know, an asylum application, just the form itself is many, many pages long, and then you have an all likelihood a supporting affidavit or multiple supporting affidavit from the applicant themselves, and then anybody else who can support their claim. And it is not unusual to, at the end of the day for one asylum claim to be mailing boxes of documents to the federal government.

    Alexander Morse  09:18

    And I imagine, in addition to the time that’s required to do this, there’s probably some costs associated with it. And provided that the migrants are not legally allowed to work. That’s another barrier into trying to get legal authorization.

    Sarah Rogerson  09:33

    Yes. So the there are filing fees that are waived for asylum seekers and in certain circumstances. But when you talk about the attorney hours involved, and the number of lawyers that are available, and the fact that New York State is one of very few states that even provide funding for immigration lawyers to do this work in a humanitarian setting, there is no guaranteed right to counsel in the federal government or in state government for immigrants You are facing removal, or for any immigrant anywhere. And so a lot of times people are relying on the kindness of strangers staying in faith based communities and asking for free legal assistance through whatever means are available. And for the asylum seekers who have been relocated to upstate New York, there was not consideration paid by officials in New York City in terms of the lack of access, the lack of the lack of immigration lawyers, generally in upstate New York, like there are fewer than a dozen of us who, in the capitol district are working on these cases.

    Alexander Morse  10:39

    Fewer than a dozen lawyers is a pretty big constraint is there public funding available to assist the services?

    Sarah Rogerson  10:45

    Organizations are constrained by what the funding allows. And for federally funded, nonprofit legal services organizations, they are actually restricted and cannot assist undocumented immigrants. So it’s really organizations that are funded through the funding that the state provides, or who are privately funded that can take these cases.

    Alexander Morse  11:10

    What’s a typical caseload for immigration lawyers?

    Sarah Rogerson  11:14

    We have 600 cases for maybe four lawyers, maybe three, and all those lawyers and organization have had a waiting list and backlog of people who need help before relocated from New York City. Definitely the gap in funding civil legal services for undocumented immigrants is massive. These cases are so involved and so cost prohibitive, that it’s unlikely that maybe any of these folks will be able to afford to pay private counsel.

    Alexander Morse  11:45

    It’s almost like a perfect storm between underfunded resources or capacity of social services or nonprofit organizations, and the influx of migrants who are seeking these services. So you had mentioned that, you know, maybe the best case scenario and application process could take six months. But in your field work, what are some average lengths of time before someone can receive that work authorization or legal residency?

    Sarah Rogerson  12:12

    It really depends, you know, six months to a year, year and a half timeline has been pretty standard for asylum seekers. There is a bill pending in Congress called the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2023, which would shorten the waiting period 30 days. And that would be great. Because we have to remember that the federal government retains near exclusive control over the regulation of migration. Any immigration reform that we want done in this country has to go through Congress. The news about executive orders under various presidencies is splashy and interesting. And the dreamers were able to make a lot of headway with the Obama executive order around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. But so many lingering problems remain because until Congress acts were stuck with a system that was rooted in exclusionary and racist ideas that some of the earliest laws were explicitly racist, like the Chinese Exclusion Act and others.

    Alexander Morse  13:14

    What are some of the missed opportunities by not integrating immigrants into our economy?

    Sarah Rogerson  13:20

    The biggest cost of all of this is that I mean, I, there are many costs to this. There’s the humanitarian costs, there’s the there’s what we miss out on an in terms of infusing our neighborhoods and communities with art and music and all kinds of things. But we also missed out economically, so immigrants have been drivers of economic activity in places that welcome and support them. We have a lot of success stories across New York State of cities and towns and municipalities have prioritized sustain migrants and helping them thrive. And what they’ve seen is that it has benefited their economy.

    Alexander Morse  14:05

    How are we able to track economic activity if many migrants are not legally authorized to work?

    Sarah Rogerson  14:11

    So even without work authorization, people can obtain what’s called a tax ID number or an ETIN. And it’s not permission to work. And it’s not a social security number. And it doesn’t give any special privileges. But it’s a tracking number, that people who are unable to get social security numbers for whatever reason can obtain. And so this is one way that we know the contributions of undocumented immigrants to our economy because they are a large participant in the tax ID program. So in 2015, individuals with tax ID numbers comprise about 4.4 million people, and they paid over $23.6 billion in taxes. So there are significant drivers of economic activity and to not provide them with work authorization is short changing the entire country.

    Alexander Morse  15:06

    You had mentioned that there’s congressional legislation to reduce the work authorization from 180 days to 30 days, and that would help allow migrants to enter the workforce and to really participate in the economic development and some revitalization of cities that you’ve mentioned earlier. I’m curious, on two things. One is why was the original delay 180 days at the federal level? What was the cause and the reason for that? And then, if a migrant were to be found working during those 180 days, when they’re not when they’re prohibited to? What are some of the repercussions that the migrant could face, and perhaps maybe the business or are there any other stakeholders that would be possibly affected?

    Sarah Rogerson  15:52

    I haven’t researched the original congressional intent and the wait period before you can apply. And that’s what the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act would do is reduce the the waiting period that the number of days that you have to wait before you can even ask for permission to work, that would be reduced down to 30. And that’s only, that’s only on the House of Representatives side of the bill, I should say on the Senate side, they still want that waiting period in there. And I haven’t had a chance with all that’s going on to look into sort of any information that we might be able to find about why that is. But I suspect that it has to do with this idea of worthiness and who is worthy of the privilege of becoming self sufficient in the United States. And this lingering idea that is rooted in racism, and that was really hypercharged after 9/11. And then very explicitly fostered under the Trump administration that asylum seekers are dangerous people, which is just not true. There are other reports, including by the Cato Institute, which is not a liberal or left leaning organization at all. It’s explicitly libertarian or sort of aligned with conservative groups. But the Cato Institute has regularly reported that an influx of refugees, asylum seekers, or undocumented immigrants generally reduces crime in a particular area. You’re actually safer in communities that have a higher proportion of undocumented immigrants, statistically, like, that’s not me saying it, that’s the Cato Institute and others that have researched this and have statistical data that backs that up. So a very simple, elegant solution to a lot of problems, our economic labor shortage issues, the need to expand the tax base to afford our government services. All of the wonderful things that immigrants have historically, for decades in this country have have provided waves of immigrants, right, drove our economic engine to the place that it is today as immigrants in America. A very simple fix of just adjusting a waiting period for work authorization faces such political scrutiny and delay and getting that done.

    Alexander Morse  18:18

    In addition to reducing the waiting period, are there any other federal policies that you’re aware of, or maybe positions that are not quite made into legislation or executive orders that could help ease the transition and allow undocumented immigrants, refugee seekers and and other migrants to participate in the labor force?

    Sarah Rogerson  18:41

    So you know, I follow very closely, and I’m just gonna lift up for your listeners some organizations, the American Immigration Council does a spectacular job, whenever there was a good idea that’s floated, and this is America, we are a country full of great ideas. We could solve this problem tomorrow, except that there is this deep political divide in our country. And we don’t have a unanimous voice when it comes to these facts about the benefits of immigration to society at large. And because of that, a lot of these good ideas never see the light of day. But there are organizations that focus on the ideas that are being developed. And so the American Immigration Council is one of those organizations that reliably promotes policies and suggestions that could make this better.

    Alexander Morse  19:34

    Sarah Rogerson, thank you so much for joining us today to provide context on the migrant crisis in New York State and highlighting some policy proposals that can help provide safe effective solutions to help immigrants integrate into society in their pursuit of a brighter future. Thank you so much.

    Sarah Rogerson  19:52

    Thank you.

    Alexander Morse  19:55

    Thanks again to Sarah Rogerson, Nathan fellow for the Rockefeller Institute and director You’re of the Immigration Law Clinic and director of the Edward P. Swyer Justice Center at Albany Law School for sharing insights into the complex humanitarian challenges that is the migrant crisis and emphasizing many of the barriers migrants face trying to obtain legal residency and work authorization to integrate into American life, as well as the systemic limitations and constraints such as insufficient funding, shortage of lawyers and administrative positions for submitting, reviewing and processing applications, all of which are essential factors in aiding immigrants in their pursuit of a brighter future in the United States. If you’d liked this episode, please rate subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts, and transcripts are available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado, Heather Trela, Guillermo Martinez, and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse  21:28

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at Rock or by following at Rockefeller inst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.