Press Release

Gillibrand, Merkley, Torres Introduce Legislation To Give Asylum Seekers A Pathway To Safe And Legal Work

Jun 23, 2023

Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY-15) announced the Assisting Seekers in Pursuit of Integration and Rapid Employment (ASPIRE) Act to give asylum seekers a pathway to safe and legal employment. Under current law, asylum seekers are forced to endure a 180-day waiting period before becoming eligible to obtain the permits needed to work legally in the United States. This delay severely hinders asylum seekers’ ability to provide for themselves and their loved ones and leaves many vulnerable to exploitative living and working conditions. With the increase of migrants in cities across the country, the ASPIRE Act would help meet current immigration needs by reducing the time asylum seekers must wait to safely and legally obtain work permits. Expediting work permit eligibility would also alleviate current labor shortages. Additionally, the ASPIRE Act would provide funding for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to help relieve the burden on workers overwhelmed with the influx of asylum applications.

“Asylum seekers come to the United States seeking a better future for themselves and their families, and reducing barriers to honest, safe and legal work will benefit everyone,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Right now, asylum seekers face a burdensome 180-day waiting period before they can to begin the process of finding work. I’m introducing the ASPIRE Act to create a clear pathway to work authorizations for asylum seekers, which will enable them to become self-sufficient and contribute to their communities. This bill will also help states manage the influx of asylum seekers across the United States.”

“Asylum seekers have fled unthinkable violence and oppression to seek refuge and build a better life in America,” said Senator Merkley. “Preventing refugees from working while they go through the legal asylum process benefits no one. Expediting work permit eligibility would help refugee families get on their feet more quickly, as well as strengthen local economies.”

“Over the last several months, New York and many other states have experienced an unprecedented wave of migrants arriving to create a better life for themselves and their families and to flee violence, persecution, and humanitarian crises,” said U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (NY-15). “As important as it is for our country to remain a welcoming sanctuary for those seeking the American dream, this situation is unsustainable and has put enormous and preventable strain on social services, community groups, and government agencies. Asylum seekers want to work, contribute to the economy, and deserve the opportunity to obtain dignified labor and the chance to build a brighter future. We must expedite the employment authorization process and significantly reduce the current waiting period, which will help fill millions of vacant jobs across the country and significantly alleviate pressure on those caring for asylum seekers.”

“Every single time I meet with asylum seekers in New York City I hear one thing: that they want to work,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams. “As a city, we have done all that we can to support the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived here, but without providing asylum seekers an expedited pathway to safe and legal work we leave them vulnerable to exploitation and make it even more challenging to build their lives in the United States. I applaud Senator Gillibrand for her leadership on this critical issue. The ASPIRE Act will provide an expedited path to work for asylum seekers and help fill vacant jobs in New York City and across the country — a win-win.”

“AILA applauds Senator Gillibrand for introducing the ASPIRE Act, which saves the government time and resources while ensuring our nation can properly welcome asylum seekers who cannot survive without work permits. The current process for asylum seekers to access employment authorization takes far too long. This bill will streamline government red-tape and offer vital stability to asylum seekers,” said Amy Grenier, Policy and Practice Counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

“Hispanic Federation proudly endorses the ASPIRE Act of 2023, which acknowledges the pressing need to empower immigrants with the opportunity to work and contribute to our nation’s social and economic fabric. Expedited work authorization is a commonsense policy that would allow asylum seekers to provide for their families without forcing local governments to scramble to administer shelter and other resources. This legislation also recognizes and invests in the invaluable work of community-based nonprofit organizations, who provide essential support to immigrants, helping them navigate our complex immigration system and promoting culturally and linguistically relevant integration services. If passed, this legislation will positively transform communities across the country and finally provide a recourse to municipalities, community-based organizations, and thousands of families willing to work hard with the opportunity of achieving the American dream,” said Frankie Miranda, President and CEO of Hispanic Federation. 

“Leaving one’s country because of an imminent threat is never easy. The families that have landed in each of our cities come to contribute to our incredible country with the sweat of their brow. All they are asking for is for the opportunity to do so legally. United Way of New York City applauds Senator Gillibrand for seeing so clearly that we must expedite the processes that are keeping our new arrivals from obtaining the necessary tools to sustain themselves and their families and formally integrate into their new communities. The ASPIRE Act is a critical step forward in ensuring that asylum seekers are able to start their lives with much less uncertainty while at the same time, giving community-based organizations that have contributed so much to this moment the resources they need to continue to provide the life changing services they are known for,” said Grace Bonilla, President and CEO of United Way of New York City.

“The ASPIRE Act of 2023 recognizes the challenges asylum seekers have acclimatizing to their new homes. Then it addresses that issue with some of the best ways the Federal government can support our newest neighbors. First is by supporting local governments and nonprofit organizations who have been on the ground since day one supporting the immediate needs of asylum seekers. Another is by expediting work authorization and properly funding U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) which will allow the agency to clear their backlog and make them better equipped to process applications in a timely manner. This is crucial to help move newly arrived asylum seekers in New York and around the country towards self-sufficiency and being able to provide for themselves and their families. We thank Senator Gillibrand for moving this critical bill forward and look forward to its passage into law,”said Murad Awawdeh, Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition.

“Covenant House New York has served over 175 young migrants since this crisis began, many who have passed dead bodies and fought off traffickers as they traveled through the Darien Gap in the hopes of finding freedom from persecution. All they want is to be safe and to work. Yet, they wait endlessly for work authorization all while local employers are desperate for staff. We are tremendously grateful for Senator Gillibrand’s leadership and are hopeful that with the passage of the ASPIRE Act, our young people will have a chance of a successful future free from exploitation,” said Jayne Bigelsen, Vice President of Advocacy of Covenant House New York.

“Through our work on the front lines supporting New York City’s asylum seekers and immigrant communities, we know that the reforms proposed in the ASPIRE Act are essential to preserving the rights of recently arrived immigrants seeking safety in our country, said Lisa Rivera, President and CEO of New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). “Expedited work permit authorizations and access to shelter and food services will give our asylum-seeking neighbors the chance to live, work, and thrive. Comprehensive policy and funding reform of this kind is sorely needed to keep families from the harms of detainment, deportation, and more. We thank Senator Gillibrand for introducing this bill and spearheading these changes.” 

“Asylum seekers struggle to support themselves and their children before they get a work permit,” said Conchita Cruz, Co-Executive Director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). “As a result, access to faster work permits is a top priority for our membership, comprising more than 500,000 asylum seekers living in the United States. Right now, the law is standing in the way of asylum seekers getting their work permits faster. Senator Gillibrand’s ASPIRE Act will help asylum seekers and other immigrants get to work and support their families.” 

“We at Safe Passage Project applaud Senator Gillibrand for introducing the ASPIRE Act which, if passed, will help asylum seekers meet their basic needs and reduce extreme backlogs in the immigration agency,” said Angela Fernández, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project. “There is no reason why asylum seekers should have to wait 6 months after filing their asylum claim before they can get a work permit; our neighbors need food and housing now, not six months from now. By fast-tracking work permit applications to 30 days post-asylum filing, we will be helping asylum seekers help their families. In addition, the ASPIRE Act‘s support for shelter services and funding to reduce immigration backlogs demonstrate a humane approach to our legal and moral obligations to people who have sought refuge in our country. Safe Passage Project heartily endorses the ASPIRE Act.” 

“At our best, the United States has been a nation that has, albeit imperfectly, been a beacon of hope and refuge for immigrants and refugees who have fled and survived oppression, poverty and persecution, and come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families. We thank Senator Gillibrand and Senator Merkley for their leadership on the ASPIRE Act. Everyone–including those seeking refuge and Americans already here–will be much better off if we actually build safe, orderly pathways for migration, and ensure that once people are here, they have the ability to work legally in a more timely fashion. This will ensure that while they go through their asylum process, they can more easily contribute to our nation and economy–and support themselves, including with access to stable housing. Congress should pass this legislation immediately,” said Todd Schulte, President.

“The embedded failures of the immigration legal system continue to hold our country back, preventing us from both upholding our values towards those who come seeking protection from harm and from fully leveraging the enormous economic, civic, and cultural benefits of including immigrants in our communities. The ASPIRE Act includes much needed reforms to meet the needs of the thousands of asylum seekers who are getting stuck in an opaque system that, as it currently stands, is designed to make them fail. Migration is natural and until it is safe to stay home, people will not stop coming to the US believing our promise of freedom and opportunity for all. We are thankful to Senator Gillibrand for introducing this bill that will provide critical infrastructure fixes to a system that is buckling under the pressure caused by thirty years of inaction,” said Camille J. Mackler, Esq., Executive Director of Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (Immigrant ARC).

“The ASPIRE Act would be a game changer for new asylum seekers,” said Nicole Phillips, Legal Director of Haitian Bridge Alliance. “Our clients come to the United States ready to work and restart their lives, but waiting periods and backlogs prevent them from receiving work permits (EADs) for over a year after filing for asylum. The delay forces asylum seekers to risk deportation and work in exploitative situations without EADs to survive. Giving people the chance to work and support our economy is a win-win.”

In addition to expediting work permit eligibility, the ASPIRE Act includes funding to help meet the moment and ensure that local governments can welcome migrants into their communities and provide critical services. Specifically, the bill focuses on:

  1. Expediting Work Permit Authorizations: This bill reduces the current waiting period for an employment authorization document (EAD) from 180 days to just 30 days after the asylum application is filed. 
  2. USCIS Funding: This bill provides $2 billion in funding for USCIS starting Fiscal Year 2024 in order to increase the agency’s resources to process asylum applications and reduce the current backlog.  
  3. Shelter and Services Program (SSP) Funding: This bill provides $10 billion in funding for CBP/FEMA’s SSP program to provide funding to local governments and nonprofit organizations offering shelter, food, and other services.

The ASPIRE Act is endorsed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Hispanic Federation, National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), Vera Institute of Justice, Women’s Refugee Commission, Refugees International,, New York ImmigrationCoalition (NYIC), the International Institute of Buffalo, World Education Services, the IMPRINT Coalition, Upwardly Global, Jewish Family & Career Services, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Refugee Congress, the Immigration Hub, Asian American Federation, African Communities Together, the Haitian Roundtable, Safe Passage Project, Acacia Network, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (Immigrant ARC), Central American Legal Assistance (CALA), National Immigration Project (NIPNLG), Dominico-American Society of Queens, Violence Intervention Program, Inc. (VIP), Mixteca Organization Inc., United Way of New York City, Covenant House New York, South Bronx United, Women In Need (WIN), New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), Unlocal, Mercy Center, Neighbors Link, Transnational Villages Network, Coalition for Immigrant Freedom, the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC), and Make the Road New York.

For bill text, please click here.

For a full list of endorsement quotes, please click here.