Luz Peña and her two children, ages 5 and 16, arrived at the southern border of the United States this summer after leaving Peru and traveling across seven countries — an experience she would not encourage anyone to go through. The family now lives at a shelter for asylum seekers in Manhattan. Peña works at a restaurant while her children attend school.
But despite living in the U.S. for over three months, Peña has yet to apply for asylum.
“The lawyer wants $1,900 for the three of us, just for the application,” she said. “And she cannot guarantee that the work permit will be approved.”
The clock is ticking for Peña and her children. Asylum seekers – migrants seeking protection from persecution – generally have a year to file their applications, and missing the deadline can result in deportation.
Peña says she sets aside every dollar she earns working as a kitchen assistant — a job she managed to get without a work permit — to save the money for her lawyer. She is grateful that the city provides shelter and food for her and her children, because otherwise “coming up with $1,900 would be impossible,” she said.
New York City has become the top destination for newly arrived migrants. As of Oct. 1, more than 122,000 asylum seekers had arrived in New York since the spring of 2022, according to city data, and over 63,000 of them were housed in city shelters. For months, Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul begged the Biden administration to let migrants work. That echoes the wishes of many migrants, too.
Though each case is different for asylum seekers, obtaining a work authorization can take months, if not years. After they submit an application, they must wait 150 days to request a work permit. But confusion and lack of information regarding the immigration process, as well as a backlogged court system, is causing migrants to delay filing their applications. Financial barriers are also preventing them from moving quickly.
While there is no fee to apply for asylum, many newly arrived migrants still spend thousands of dollars to secure their stay in the country. Due to the complexity of the process and a shortage of pro bono attorneys, asylum seekers have little option but to pay for legal representation. Many of them cannot afford it.
As a Venezuelan national, Peña is also eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which involves a much simpler application and can grant access to a work permit as soon as it is approved. Peña is considering applying for TPS, but the cost is discouraging her from doing it anytime soon. “It’s $1,200 for the three of us,” she said.
Unlike asylum, there is a fee to apply for TPS, which can cost up to $545 — depending on whether a request for work authorization is also filed with the application. Although those lacking the financial means may qualify for a waiver, that can only be submitted by mail, which slows the process.
Additionally, migrants cannot file a single TPS application for an entire family like they can for asylum.
“A family of five, for example, has to pay for five different applications,” says Jesús Aguais, executive director of Aid for Aids, a nonprofit organization that is providing support to immigrants. “That is a huge roadblock for Venezuelans that are desperate to work.”
Biden’s decision in September to grant TPS for some Venezuelans in the U.S. — an estimated 15,000 in New York City — came after mounting pressure from Adams and Hochul, who demanded that migrants get faster access to work permits. But a lack of guidance from city officials has left many migrants in the dark about their rights under the new program; some are unaware of its existence.
María Sancler, a Venezuelan migrant who has been in the country for five months, says she recently paid a lawyer $500 to help with her asylum application. She was able to save up the money by cleaning apartments and, most recently, by working at a fast-food restaurant. She wants to file an application for TPS as well, but she worries about the financial burden.
“I don’t know how much TPS costs, but I just don’t have much money right now,” said Sancler.
These financial obstacles could be contributing to why few migrants have filed for asylum.
“There is definitely a shortage of free legal services,” said Bethany Thorne, chief of staff at Project Rousseau, a nonprofit that offers free immigration services. “But there is also a lot of misinformation and confusion about accessing them.”
For example, many asylum seekers may be unaware that they can file their applications without cost at the Asylum Application Help Center, which was launched by the city in June and operates in the American Red Cross Greater New York headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. At the Center, attorneys supervise paralegals who help migrants fill out forms. Migrants can also seek free legal assistance at the several nonprofit organizations that receive state and city funding.
The city and nonprofits, however, struggle to keep up with demand. And they are typically able to assist only with the submission of applications, leaving migrants to navigate the rest of the process by themselves.
When asked whether the city is planning to expand free legal services for migrants, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs’ Director of Communication Shaina Coronel responded, “The city already invests more than $60 million annually on free immigration legal services.”
“Places like the Red Cross are helping families file pro se, which means that they help you complete the I-589 form, but then you’re on your own,” says Thorne. “The I-589 is just a tiny part of the process. You have to do a declaration, which can be 15 to 20 pages. You then have to go to an asylum interview, or if you’re in court proceedings, go to court.”
There are also risks with independently submitting an asylum application.
“When you do it that way, a lot of the information can be missing, and it might not be enough for the judge to allow it to be into the record,” said Karn Sharma, an immigration attorney.
Asylum seekers may choose to submit an I-589 form without a lawyer to start the process and eliminate the risk of deportation, but eventually they will likely need to find legal representation.
Anyi Tatiana Riveros and her husband submitted their application for free at the Asylum Application Help Center over a month ago, as advised by the staff at the Roosevelt Hotel shelter, where they currently live. Now, they are hoping to save enough money to pay for a lawyer who will take their case.
“Having a lawyer will give us peace of mind that everything is in order and that we won’t be deported,” said Riveros. “We will need at least $800 or $1,000 for that.”
Sharma says he has seen “cases that go for $6,000 from beginning to end, up until $10,000.”
Coming up with that amount of money can be difficult when one is not legally allowed to work. Riveros and her husband have found sporadic jobs in construction through a WhatsApp group administered by migrants at the shelter, but with two daughters to support, they are barely getting by.
“It’s been very tough for us. It’s been very, very sad because work is scarce,” says Riveros. “All we want to do is work.”