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How creative and compassionate reforms can expand US work permits

The U.S. immigration system is at an impasse. While most immigrants in the U.S. are authorized to work, undocumented immigrants have spent years filling important roles in society with no means of legalizing their status. Those who wish to do so face immediate.

of overcoming their unlawful presence and finding an employer willing to go through the long, often expensive process of obtaining a work permit.

Beyond these difficulties, the current work permit categories have stringent requirements and restrictions regarding who can qualify in the first place, leaving many of the undocumented with no feasible pathway to permanent residency. Exploring and examining these categories could serve as a guide for creating an improved process.


work permits, for example, are widely used in the industries in which the undocumented often work. But the application process is incredibly involved, often deterring even the most optimistic petitioner.


prove that there is a lack of available U.S. workers by obtaining Department of Labor certification, applying for a prevailing wage determination, filing a job order with the state workforce agency, and submitting a petition with forms and supporting documentation contact all U.S.-citizen employees who used to work for the company, notify existing workers and go through a recruitment process that is far more involved than usual (including purchasing newspaper advertisements). The employer must stop the process entirely if any minimally qualified U.S.


with USCIS before the worker can obtain the visa – but only, of course, if the annual cap hasn’t been met. If the cap has been met, the petition must be selected in the lottery. Unless an employer has a dedicated lawyer or a team of people to deal with each case, this can be daunting, to say the least. Consequently, if the H2-A and -B programs are not drastically improved, many employers will likely hesitate to engage in the cumbersome process.

work permit is another with potential for the undocumented. It enables qualifying individuals to work in the U.S. in one of the designated professional categories, which include traditional roles such as accountant, lawyer, architect and engineer, among 60 others. Yet the categories are somewhat limiting, even for quickly growing industries such as technology. It would be prudent to expand them to include more options — particularly technical (electrician, computer support specialist and medical assistive personnel) and non-professional (restaurant manager or server, landscaper, construction worker and plumber).

Canada offers the useful model of its free trade agreement  work permits  which are similar to the USMCA work permit, but are they available for citizens of more countries and include more job categorie for instance, is open to any professional whose role is not on a list of specifically excluded jobs. There is also a section for technicians that includes precisely some of the roles that are missing from the USMCA work permit, such as plumbers and electricians.

Allowing for more free trade agreement-generated work permits in the U.S. would not be entirely unprecedented. The existing E1 (for those engaging in cross-border trade) and E2 (for investors) are available to citizens of a variety of countries that have treaties of commerce and navigation with the U.S. Keeping the USMCA work permit structure and application process while including more eligible citizenships and professions could be an attractive change for legislators — minimal enough, while still offering far more avenues for more workers than the current structure.


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