Introduction

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced that Afghan and Ukrainian nationals who enter the country via special parole programs would be granted automatic employment authorization alongside their parole. Humanitarian parolees typically need to wait for USCIS to approve their applications for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) to work in the U.S. While parolees from these countries will still need to acquire an EAD within 90 days of their employment start date, they will be eligible for work as soon as they arrive.

This change is a welcome one for several reasons. Being able to work has significant effects on migrant well-being and integration. The workplace plays a vital role in helping new arrivals learn cultural norms, develop their language skills, forge informal ties, and discover new ways to develop and transfer their existing skills. The workplace also leads to an investment in the local community and a sense of productivity and belonging, which are essential to adjusting and assimilating to a new environment. Recent research has affirmed the positive benefits of work for the social identity of refugees in particular.

Despite these benefits, the administration’s change on EAD is notable for who it excludes as much as it is for who it includes. Beneficiaries of parole under the new Processes for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, who enter the country with the help of a private sponsor, still have to apply for employment authorization under “existing regulations”. As we will outline, there are clear economic and social benefits for extending automatic authorization to this specific group of parolees, and extending the current 90-day window. By allowing these parolees to seek and begin work without additional bureaucratic hurdles or delays, this change will enable recipients to begin their time in the U.S. under the best possible conditions for integration. 

Economic benefits of automatic work authorization

As of mid-June 2022, about 72,500 Afghans and 39,000 Ukrainians had been paroled into the United States. As humanitarian parolees, these individuals are often entitled to particular benefits or support upon arrival. For example, parolees without minor children are usually eligible for eight to 12 months of the federally-funded Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) program that provides monthly payments to parolees to facilitate their U.S. settlement. Those with children often receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF and RCA beneficiaries are typically eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. SNAP, TANF, and RCA are all means-tested programs, so income and resource thresholds are in place to limit eligibility. 

Expediting the employment of parolees can save American taxpayer dollars by allowing program beneficiaries to become self-sufficient sooner, thus removing them from the public benefits programs. 

Let’s consider the example of a married couple without children that have been granted humanitarian parole and live in Washington state. If neither individual is working and they do not have any income, the couple could expect to receive $459 per month through the RCA program, which would be adjusted based on earnings if one individual joined the workforce. In addition, they could receive up to $347 in food assistance. However, if the couple’s combined income ever exceeded $839 per month, they would no longer be eligible for RCA payments. If their gross income surpassed $2,622 per month, they would also lose eligibility for food assistance. With a state minimum wage of $14.49, one partner working just 14 hours a week in a minimum wage job would enable the state to remove the couple from RCA benefits. If both partners worked just 22 hours per week at minimum-wage jobs, they would also be removed from the food assistance program. 

While this example demonstrates the potential for rapid self-sufficiency, many Afghan and Ukrainian parolees arrive in the U.S. with valuable skills that could entitle them to higher-paying positions, including skilled trade occupations or positions requiring proficiency in English and other foreign languages. However, if forced to wait for an employment authorization document, they could remain on publicly-funded support programs for months longer than necessary. 

Future recommendations

Our recommended next steps are to 1) extend automatic work authorization to recipients of the Processes for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV) parole programs and 2) increase the 90-day EAD window for Afghan and Ukrainian parolees. 

Granting CHNV beneficiaries automatic work authorization is prudent,given the role private sponsors play in supporting them during their parole. According to the program’s language, sponsors are expected to help beneficiaries apply for their EAD and secure employment if possible. Allowing CHNV beneficiaries to work upon arrival will help sponsors get a head start in assisting them in finding employment and allowing them to focus on other critical areas of support, such as access to housing and education. This is crucially important because of the delays that are commonplace in acquiring an EAD. 

While timeframes for parole-specific EAD applications are not publically available, processing times for other uncategorized EAD applications currently range from 8 to 15.5 months, depending on the service center processing the application. The new policy, however, only allows authorization of incident to status for the first 90 days of employment for impacted Afghan and Ukrainian nationals. If an arriving parolee applies for the EAD on their first day in the U.S. and  begins working within a month of arrival, current processing times may force the parolee  to leave their job after  3 months. They will also need to rely on public benefits while they wait for their EAD’s approval. 

As of FY2022 Q3, USCIS had over 1.5 million pending employment authorization applications. While USCIS has announced a goal to have all EAD applications processed within three months of submission by the end of FY2023, this is highly unlikely. 

In the meantime, extending parolees’ ability to work incident to status beyond the current 90-day window of employment could be a common-sense policy with the potential to save taxpayer money, capitalize on parolee talents, and enable greater self-sufficiency. Automatic authorization for these populations would also help the U.S. maximize incoming beneficiaries’ economic skills without artificial waiting periods.

While USCIS should be applauded for taking this step for Afghan and Ukrainian parolees, the logic behind it is not limited to those populations alone. Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan parolees, in particular, stand to benefit greatly from a similar rule change, and all of these populations should be granted a longer period of employment incident to status to ensure that current processing times do not undermine the potential benefits of this policy.

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