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Biden’s blowing an opportunity on immigration

Comeuppance has arrived in sanctuary cities.

New York City is struggling to manage 100,000 migrants who have shown up during the last year from Venezuela, several African nations, and other failing states that are miserable and dangerous. A COVID-era emergency restriction on border crossings expired in May, opening the door to thousands of additional migrants, mostly coming to the United States over the southwest border.

Southern Republican governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have transported some migrants to so-called sanctuary cities that generally have policies against deportation and try to accommodate new arrivals. That’s obviously a political ploy, but one derived from a legitimate beef: Coastal and Northern liberals decry the rough handling of migrants in border states, but they don’t normally have to deal with the costs and strains that come with undocumented foreigners constantly tramping through town.

Well, now they do — and it’s ugly. Feuds have broken out across Sanctuaryland as politicians blame each other for not doing more to house and feed migrants, while homeless shelters overflow. The New York saga is a microcosm for how dysfunctional the whole US immigration system is. New York City Mayor Eric Adams wants other New York communities to take some of its migrants, but other cities say no, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul backs them up. It’s nobody’s fault and everybody’s.

Both Adams and Hochul say the federal government should do more to help, but the Biden administration says New York authorities need to tighten up their own procedures before the feds can do more. And everybody blames Congress for endless dawdling over immigration reform, pointing specifically to Republicans who seem to prefer the current chaos over any kind of legislated solution, even half-measures.

Yet there could be opportunity for Biden in the New York chaos, which is getting special attention because, well, it’s in the media capital of the country. Biden could use a boost on the issue. His overall approval rating is around 40%, but it’s only around 30% for his handling of immigration. Voters favor Republicans over Democrats on border security by more than 2 to 1, and immigration is one punchy issue that can help drive up Republican turnout in close elections.

Asylum Seekers line the side walk of the Roosevelt Hotel passing time and sleeping in the endless sun as their cases wind through the legal hallways to find housing and work accommodations in New York City on August 2, 2023.
Asylum seekers line the sidewalk of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City as their cases wind through the legal hallways to find housing and work accommodations. (Siegfried Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2023) (Siegfried Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)

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Thing is, Biden might have to break from his technocratic instincts to make some headway on the migrant problem — and maybe even borrow a page from Donald Trump’s self-promotional playbook.

Hochul rightly wants all the migrants idling in New York to get prompt work permits, so they can get jobs and start earning money. That’s what most of the migrants want, too.

A group of prominent New York businesses has weighed in, saying in an open letter to Biden and Congressional leaders that “there’s a compelling need for expedited processing of asylum applications and work permits for those who meet federal eligibility standards.” The letter, signed by the CEOs of Pfizer, BlackRock, Blackstone, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and more than 100 other firms, pointed out that “there are labor shortages in many US industries, where employers are prepared to offer training and jobs to individuals who are authorized to work in the United States.”

So: Thousands of migrants who want to work are sitting around not working. Companies want to hire them, but can’t. What’s the problem?

This is where the system starts to fail — which is to say, right at the beginning. Experts say the process for applying for a work permit is Byzantine and far too lengthy. It normally takes at least six months to get a work permit from the date you apply. Immigration lawyers can help, but they’re expensive. Nonprofits are overwhelmed. So is the main agency approving work permits, Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). Many migrants don’t even file an application for a work permit until they’ve been in the country for a while and know what they’re supposed to do.

I asked the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Immigration Forum how Biden might be able to help, assuming there’s no Congressional legislation. Here are a few of the group’s suggestions:

Extend the duration of work permits and automatically renew some of them, to free more staff to address new applications. There are nearly 290,000 work permits awaiting renewal at CIS. Cutting that backlog would free more people to deal with new arrivals.

Find a way for migrants to apply for a work permit as soon as they arrive in the United States, so the six-month clock starts ticking as soon as possible.

Translate the application form into more languages and simplify the application process to eliminate time-wasting mistakes.

More money and staffing throughout the migrant-processing system would obviously help as well, similar to the way Democrats approved more funding for the Internal Revenue Service last year, to improve customer service and provide more resources to catch tax cheats. Congress would have to approve that, and it won’t, given that Republicans control the House. But Biden can certainly make more noise about the need for more immigration funding and the problems caused by lack of resources.

Biden could go further. When Donald Trump was president, Congress only appropriated a portion of the funds needed to build his notorious border wall. But Trump got more money elsewhere, including $10 billion from the defense budget. That was no model of good governance, since diverting those funds short-changed other priorities and generated lawsuits challenging the legality of the move. But Trump did try to bulldoze through the usual Washington obstacles, on an issue of high importance to his supporters.

Why doesn’t Biden? He doesn’t have to go as far as Trump, by defunding some programs to boost others. But it wouldn’t cost billions, either. By addressing a single problem that now bedevils Democrats — thousands of idle migrants in their cities who need to get jobs — Biden could at least make a show of trying to whip the immigration bureaucracy into shape. There aren’t a few bucks in the $6.4 trillion federal budget to help ease the backlog of work permits at CIS?

Democrats’ main objection to Republican immigration policies is that they dehumanize people willing to work hard to improve their lives. It’s also dehumanizing to prevent people from working by strangling them with red tape. Get people working, and some of the other problems will solve themselves.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.

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