DHS data reveals hidden work permits for millions of migrants

By Will Racke

The Department of Homeland Security released a trove of immigration data Monday showing that the U.S. government gives work permits to millions of migrants not usually counted in annual legal immigration totals.

The mass of unseen workers — a complex agglomeration of refugees, asylum recipients and special temporary visa holders — is far larger than the roughly 1.1 million legal permanent residents and 500,000 temporary workers authorized each year.

According to the DHS figures, about 1.7 million Employment Authorization Documents (EAD) were issued to more than 50 classes of immigrants in FY2016, and another 1.6 million work permits have been approved so far in FY2017, which ends Sept. 30. Immigration skeptics call this group of migrants, whose work permits range from one year to lifetime authorization, a third pipeline of foreign labor that rarely factors into the debate over legal immigration levels.

“The major policy point here is that there is a huge alien workforce that remains unrecognized because it is never seen as a group, the way it should be viewed,” Andrew North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

As North explains, there are three defining features of what he calls the “half-amnestied” migrant population. First, it is much bigger than the number of temporary foreign worker visas issued every year. It is not tied to any specific employers or industries, so EAD holders are free to move around the U.S. labor market as they wish. And it is almost completely distinct from well known alien worker groups such as legal immigrants, temporary foreign workers, and illegal aliens.

All told, the Obama administration issued about 6.7 million EADs from FY2013 through FY2016, according to DHS data. Since many of those were renewal applications and some of the EAD holders do return to their home countries, the current stock of non-immigrants with work permits is a smaller, but still significant, number. CIS’s North estimates that there are about 4 million EAD holders currently living in the U.S.

About half the EAD population comes from four categories of migrants: recipients of Obama’s Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, temporary visa holders who have adjusted their immigration status, foreign students and asylum applicants. They are just four of 58 categories of migrants eligible to receive EADs independent of established work visa programs.

Immigration hawks are likely to seize on the DHS data to make the case that legal immigration levels are too high, especially with millions of EADs recipients entering the U.S. labor market along with legal permanent residents and holders of foreign worker visas.

“The goal of the open-borders types is to keep any conversation about EADs revolving around specific subclasses of them, rather than the multiple-million total picture, and to keep talking in terms temporary documents,” North wrote.

“The permits may be temporary, but their labor-force loosening impact is permanent,” he added.

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Image courtesy of Arbeitsbesuch Mazedonien/Wikimedia Commons