US Issues a Million Work Permits a Year, Illegal Immigrants Top Receivers

February 2, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

Almost 5.5 million work permits were issued by the U.S. government since 2009, shows data obtained by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in a Freedom of Information Act request

About one million of the permits, and possibly more, went to illegal immigrants, according to the CIS, a non-profit advocating for lower immigration.

Since 2012, over 600,000 illegal immigrants enjoy protection from deportation through President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action (DACA) program. They entered the country before turning 16 and are eligible for 2-year work permits. The permits can be renewed.

There are several other situations when an illegal immigrant receives a work permit. Even if facing deportation, such person can apply for a deferral and a work permit if, for example, a child or spouse in the United States relies on him or her for support.

Obama issued an executive order in November to expand the deferral program to about 5 million more illegal immigrants. But on Tuesday the Senate is expected to vote on whether to defund the program.

Republicans, who denounce Obama’s action as an executive overreach, have majority in the Senate, but not strong enough to prevent a filibuster from Democrats.

Complex Exceptions

Over a million of the work permits went to tourists and foreign students. CIS took issue with those, saying there’s no legal basis for giving permits to these groups. But that may not be the case.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issues work permits for dozens of reasons. They are given to people waiting for a Green Card, but already in the United States, like refugees, asylum seekers, and relatives of residents, for example.

Yet foreign students get permits too for “practical training” or when facing “severe financial hardship.” Visitors with tourist visas can also get a permit, many times for as little as two weeks, when they do some business in the country, explained Muzaffar Chishti, New York director of the Migration Policy Institute.

Tens of thousands more permits are given to spouses and children of people who are not residents yet, but are on a path to citizenship or work in the United States under a multitude of special situations.

Over 1.7 million of the work permits “were issued to aliens whose status was unknown, not recorded by the adjudicator, or not disclosed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that processes the applications,” stated Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, in a report on the data.

The DACA applicants, asylum applicants, people about to be deported, and foreigners with pending green card applications are probably part of the unknown group, according to Vaughan.

Vaughan stated it is “disconcerting” the government either doesn’t know or refuses to disclose who received the 1.7 million work permits.

A USCIS spokesperson stated in an email that the agency will review the CIS report before issuing any response.

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