September 25, 2023

“You Want to Work or You Want to Steal?” The Impossible Choices Migrants Face Without Work Authorization

Stacy Torres author photoBy Stacy Torres

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” said Mark Twain. And history is once again rhyming in the current migrant crisis. The most visible consequences of our broken immigration system have unfolded on New York City streets, where this summer hundreds of asylum seekers slept outside a midtown Manhattan hotel doubling as humanitarian relief center and overcrowded shelter. But this national issue transcends any single region, and the growing desperation offers a cautionary tale for communities across the country.

More than 100,000 migrants have arrived in New York City since spring 2022, with more coming daily.  The city reports housing more than 82,000 people, including nearly 30,000 children, with the mayor estimating shelter costs to reach $12 billion by 2025.

Such desperate scenes rhyme with my father’s migration journey from Chile nearly five decades ago as an undocumented immigrant. His story illustrates one simple but effective solution to easing the current crisis: expediting work authorization.

Elected officials have gained little traction with pleas for federal help, though Biden administration senior advisors recently met with New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul. Aside from increased funding, the most critical ask is fast-tracking legal work permits. Work authorization would alleviate unnecessary suffering and reduce pressure on taxpayer-funded facilities, allowing people to support themselves and their families with dignity while boosting the economy and filling national labor shortages.

Legal Aid Society attorney Joshua Goldfein says, “The Biden administration could solve this overnight by letting people have work authorization. And that's really what people want. If the federal government would allow them to work, they would move out of shelter, you know, within days.” Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, also urging federal assistance, said of her conversations with migrants:  “They didn’t talk to me today about pain or suffering. All they’re asking is, give me a job, give me a job.”

Like many migrants, my father never intended to come here nor stay. He escaped high unemployment and dangerous work in Chile’s nitrate mines before hitchhiking to Colombia and finding employment as a merchant marine. He sailed for five years and could rattle off a partial list of cities he visited quicker than I could count on my fingers: Oslo, Liverpool, Rotterdam, Bordeaux, Venice, Bilbao, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Cartagena, Venice, Athens, Tunis, Beirut, San Diego, New Orleans.

Unexpected twists re-routed him to New York instead of California, which he preferred for its milder weather. He arrived in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in the blistering March cold. Dad bragged about his country as much as he loved complaining about the weather here. Chile had the best food, wine, women, poets, cities, beaches, subways, and soccer players. “You know it’s summer there now,” he exclaimed on snowy days, shaking his head at the lunacy of the Northern Hemisphere when things were so much nicer below the equator.

Without granting the right to work, we’re subjecting migrants to the same exploitation and impossible choices my father faced.

Though Dad endured precarious living conditions, he spun humorous stories of sleeping on the beach and packed into a tiny apartment lined wall-to-wall with mattresses for more than ten men. He left when an old Chilean man took in him and his friend rent-free. “You want to work or you want to steal?” the man asked. He stole clothes for a living, sometimes going to jail but never for long. “They let him go because he was old,” Dad said. “Work,” my father responded and cobbled together a patchwork of shadow economy jobs: washing dishes in a Long Island restaurant, working on the cleaning crew of a dry docked ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, painting window frames on buildings across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dad’s sweet living arrangement ended abruptly. His benefactor kept getting into trouble. One day the police showed up, accused Dad and his friend of stealing three crates of tomatoes, and hauled them to the police station. The old man confessed:  “These guys had nothing to do with it. I stole it all.” My father never figured out how someone who looked barely able to lift a single tomato carried three heavy crates alone. 

Multiple brushes with immigration authorities almost got Dad deported. His last close call drove him deeper into the underground economy. Mounting ethnic tensions at the building where he handled tenants’ trash led some workers to call immigration authorities. A Puerto Rican friend tipped him off about the imminent raid. Dad left. The old man had already tutored him on the finer points of petty thievery. To survive now, he stole clothing from Macy’s and other department stores, peddling the stolen goods at bars and the National Maritime Union building.

Despite the political upheaval of Chile’s 1973 coup, Dad’s asylum petition was denied. He evaded immigration officers for two years, finally obtaining a green card through marriage to my mother. Upon receiving working papers, he was hired as a porter cleaning floors and was soon promoted to elevator operator at the same building where he once fled immigration. After twenty-five years, he retired from this job with a union pension.

Dad remained a skilled juggler, pursuing extra money-making opportunities with Ralph Kramden-level enthusiasm. Most ventures failed and none made him rich, but they supported my mother and four children. He bartended, pet sat, cleaned homes, opened a brick-and-mortar clothing store, and sold t-shirts in Times Square.

Mountains of research demonstrate immigrants’ contributions to our economy and society. Compared to native-born Americans, they start more businesses and use fewer welfare benefits. My father’s trajectory reflects a common immigration story. Given meaningful opportunities, immigrants spin gold, paying taxes and bolstering the social safety net for everyone by contributing to programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Continued inertia from the federal government on facilitating a pathway to work for migrants needlessly prolongs suffering, leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, and deprives society of the skills they desperately want to contribute. Finger pointing between President Biden and Congress, with growing cracks in the relationship between New York City’s mayor and the state’s governor, is escalating a crisis manufactured from political miscalculations.

In old age, my irascible father expanded his repertoire of complaints to dawdling tourists. I chuckled whenever he grumbled, “These people are not from New York.” Neither was he. But he never returned to his country. Towards the end of his life, he declined to visit Chile one last time. He lived here more than half his life, 46 years, and died at home mere blocks from where he arrived in 1975. My father never became a United States citizen, but he became a New Yorker. Whether today’s migrants become New Yorkers, Californians, Floridians, or Idahoans, they have a wealth to offer our communities. But unless we commit to creating legal pathways to work, we all lose.


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