Making Sense of Recent Migrant Arrivals and Their Legal Issues Amidst Our Broken Immigration System

One of the big issues the CBF has been working on this summer with many other partners is helping coordinate the legal response for the thousands of recent migrants who have been bused to Chicago from the southern border region or otherwise have made their way here after recently crossing the border.

More than 11,000 migrants are estimated to have arrived in Chicago and Illinois since late last summer. Their legal issues are varied and complicated, and setting up a coordinated network of qualified organizations to get them the legal help they need in a short amount of time would be challenging under any circumstances. What makes the response a much bigger challenge for both the migrants and our community, however, is our country’s broken immigration system that serves as the backdrop for all of this.

Thousands of these recent migrants are likely to be here for years while their cases are pending, but due to being in legal limbo they can’t be hired by Chicago area employers who need workers and would gladly hire them right now. In the meantime, these migrants have few realistic options to get out of the temporary shelters they are now housed in, creating growing stress for both them and the communities where they are located as the expense to state and local government to support them continues to increase in a way that will be hard to sustain.

It would be hard to come up with a more messed up system to address these issues if we tried, and there is no politically easy way out of this. That said, this is the hand we all have been dealt right now, and as a legal community we should do what we can to help the migrants caught up in this dysfunction and do what we can to fix the underlying problems in the system.

The Recent Migrants and Their Legal Situation

Most of the recent migrants arriving here in Chicago are from Venezuela and other countries in Central and South America. They are coming here for similar reasons to immigrants who have been coming to America since our country’s founding. They are fleeing difficult circumstances at home and seeking a better life for their families, making dramatic and dangerous journeys to our southern border to do so.

Under our current broken immigration system, there are few legal paths available to them even as employers throughout the country need workers that are not available in our current labor market. Some migrants may have valid claims for asylum because they are fleeing political persecution or otherwise meet the requirements, and some may have other limited legal pathways like T Visas (for victims of trafficking), but most won’t have strong claims that would allow them to ultimately prevail.

The only realistic prospect for most of the recent migrants to get legal work authorization is to file for asylum, which allows them to apply for work authorization after five months that can last for the duration that their cases are pending. And right now, there already are huge backlogs in the immigration system for processing asylum claims, with some cases taking as long as seven years to resolve. There are also backlogs in processing applications for work authorization, so even after migrants are eligible to apply, they may have to wait for months longer to receive work permits.

The Circular Problem Created by Our Dysfunctional Immigration System

Because most recent migrants are stuck in legal limbo and cannot work unless and until they can get work authorization, it creates a circular problem for our state and local government and our community. Because these migrants lack the legal ability to independently support themselves, they are dependent on government and charitable support, including the shelter system that already is creating a difficult situation for the migrants and the communities where the shelters are located.

The asylum pathway to work authorization and the years-long adjudication time for asylum claims creates a twisted incentive for migrants to consider applying for asylum even when they do not have strong claims. And if most of the current group of migrants do in fact apply for asylum irrespective of the merits of their cases, it will just put more pressure on the already backlogged system.

Coordinating the Legal Response

To sum up, it is a challenging legal backdrop for the recent migrants in the current system, but many do in fact have strong claims for immigration relief and all need help in realistically assessing their legal options and navigating the complex procedural aspects of the immigration system.

State and local government is working together with legal aid and immigrant service organizations, the bar and broader legal community, and philanthropic organizations to develop and support a coordinated legal response structure. The goal is to triage the legal needs of the recent migrants and provide further legal assistance for those with strong legal claims as much as possible. Pro bono attorneys already are helping with some of the initial legal response, and there will be additional pathways for volunteers to work with the legal aid organizations on the front lines to assist in this response.

What a Broader Policy Solution Might Look Like

The current situation impacting migrants here is just one higher-profile window into our broken immigration system; many other immigrants struggle with similar challenges due to the lack of realistic legal pathways in today’s system. We need much bigger fixes for the overall immigration system for all concerned that are not realistic in the current political environment. However, to solve the current problem for these recent migrants, there are more targeted potential actions that could help address this crisis in a way that works for everyone.  

It won’t be easy to do politically, but a targeted and temporary parole for those migrants who crossed the border before the new border policy that went into effect in May would solve much of the current problem. This temporary parole would give legal status to qualifying migrants while their cases are pending and allow them to work, relieving the other growing stresses on the migrants, state and local government, and our communities noted above.

For this temporary parole to have any potential political viability, it would have to be limited to people who came over before the May policy was put in place, similar to the way the DACA program works. This step also would need to be paired with other steps to expedite the adjudication process. That should include a much bigger investment in the infrastructure for the immigration courts and asylum system to process cases in a timely manner and perhaps some staging of the adjudication process to help expedite asylum cases in immigration court that do not appear to have legal merit.