Why are so many employers struggling to find workers right now? One reason is the unprecedented federal backlog of work permits for immigrants.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that issues these permits, is sitting on 1.4 million applications, leaving applicants in limbo for months or even years.

U.S. employers are required to ensure their employees — regardless of citizenship or national origin — are allowed to work legally. For native-born Americans, that may mean simply providing a Social Security number.

For immigrants, however, it means supplying an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), essentially a piece of plastic that allows them to work legally in the United States for an extended period. The permitting backlog is a major obstacle for these workers.

An immigrant’s ability to work is critical to their survival. Procedural delays are an added stress for those who may already struggle to find money for rent, child care, and food for their family.

For example, if an applicant waiting for an EAD renewal doesn’t receive the physical card in time to show to their employer, they will likely lose their job. Even when the agency mails a letter confirming that the document has been renewed and the card is on its way, most employers don’t understand this and fire the employee.

These workers don’t just lose their income. They can also lose their health insurance,  the ability to renew or apply for a driver’s license, and unemployment benefits, to name just a few consequences. In other cases, immigrants aren’t able to apply for work at all.

The Tahirih Justice Center, which supports immigrant survivors of gender-based violence, has seen some of our clients wait for nearly a year for their EAD renewals to get approved, costing them their jobs and medical insurance during the scariest time in their lives.

Tahirih’s attorneys make their best efforts to file service and ombudsman inquiries to ensure proper assistance, but the USCIS continues to fail those who need help.

These problems date back years, but the previous administration in particular made a concerted effort to “weaponize” and restrict work permits, as Politico reported in 2020.

That year, approximately 75,000 applicants filed a lawsuit against USCIS. Within seven days of a court order in response to the lawsuit, 27,829 applicants received their EAD. The lawsuit, however, failed to make any significant policy changes, and individuals experiencing processing delays continue to file lawsuits across the country.

Under the Biden administration, USCIS has taken incremental steps to tackle the backlog, but these steps aren’t enough. The lengthy processing time estimates on the USCIS website — with basic applications often taking six months to over a year to process — show that the agency lacks an effective internal procedure to simplify and speed up the adjudication process.

Fortunately, a recent federal court judgment offered relief to people seeking asylum who have been waiting for their EAD when it ruled that the previous administration’s restrictions on work permits were illegal and invalid. This ruling gives hope to people seeking asylum today, many of whom have been living in this country for years and are unable to work legally while they wait for their case to be approved.

USCIS must consider how its inaction affects immigrants and their families. More than a million immigrants are eager to contribute to this country. Allowing them to work legally will boost our workforce and economy.

Policymakers should create policies that protect an immigrant’s right to work — and therefore their right to live.

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Payal Sinha is a managing attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

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