Chicago, IL

Longtime Undocumented Residents Beg Biden Not to Forget Them, Extend Job Permits Beyond New Arrivals

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Immigrant workers in Chicago seek equal opportunities: The 'Work Permits for All' movement
Photo byTasnim News [CC BY 4.0]

seek In Pilsen, Chicago, Juana Arreguin's ice cream shop has become a refuge for recently arrived migrants, predominantly from Venezuela. As these newcomers seek employment and stability, Arreguin, herself an immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico, has been offering support in the form of meals and guidance. However, a recent policy change granting work permits to select groups has left Arreguin feeling disillusioned, prompting her to join a growing chorus of voices advocating for equal opportunities for all undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Arreguin's journey to entrepreneurship in Chicago reflects the resilience of many immigrants who arrived without legal authorization. With her husband, she overcame the challenges of living undocumented for nearly three decades to establish their ice cream shop. Their venture, fueled by years of hard work and savings from jobs without permits, represents the American Dream pursued against considerable odds.

The recent policy shift by President Joe Biden, expediting work permits for migrants primarily from Venezuela, as well as Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti, has sparked hope and frustration within the immigrant community. While Arreguin acknowledges the increased opportunities for Venezuelans, she implores the government to extend the program to encompass all undocumented immigrants, including those who have been contributing to the country's economy for years.

The "Work Permits for All" campaign is gaining momentum in Chicago, where thousands of undocumented immigrants are raising their voices to demand the right to work legally. Advocates argue that the existing federal parole program, utilized to provide work authorization to recently arrived migrants, could be a catalyst for transformative change for the estimated 7.8 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

Work authorization, proponents contend, would empower undocumented workers to step out of the shadows, enabling them to demand fair wages and workplace protections without fear. Additionally, legal work permits would grant them the freedom to visit their home countries without jeopardizing their lives in the U.S., addressing a long-standing challenge faced by many who fear being barred from reentering the country if they leave.

Arreguin, who once kept her immigration status hidden due to fear of deportation, has now found her voice. She emphasizes the need for recognition and equal treatment, highlighting that undocumented immigrants, despite contributing millions in taxes, often feel overlooked. The call for work permits extends beyond mere economic considerations; it is a plea for acknowledgment and dignity.

Illinois is home to over 300,000 workers without permanent legal status, primarily from Mexico, who have been diligently working and paying taxes without the benefit of job permits. Many use individual taxpayer identification numbers to fulfill tax obligations, while others navigate the challenges of working with fake documents or under the table. The estimated $900 million in federal taxes and $700 million in state and local taxes paid by undocumented workers underscore their substantial economic contribution.

A recent rally in Pilsen brought forth the poignant stories of undocumented workers who have been toiling without job permits for decades. Tearful testimonies and signs displaying the number of years worked without legal authorization conveyed a powerful message: they refuse to be forgotten. Consuelo Martinez, a mother of two, passionately expressed the sentiment shared by many as she implored President Biden to listen and grant the opportunity to work without fear.

The plight of undocumented workers in Illinois reflects a complex system where individuals contribute significantly to the economy while navigating a precarious legal landscape. The American Immigration Council reports that undocumented workers contribute over $1.6 billion in taxes annually. Despite their financial contributions, their lack of legal status creates barriers to accessing government entitlement programs, making their economic contributions even more remarkable.

Erendira Rendon, now the vice president of Immigrant Justice at Resurrection Project, experienced the challenges firsthand as an undocumented individual. She played a pivotal role in advocating for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, which granted her a job permit and protection from deportation. Despite making strides for her community, Rendon acknowledges the frustration felt by undocumented immigrants who have little hope of legalizing their status.

The recent decision to grant work permits to newly arrived migrants has exacerbated feelings of resentment among longtime undocumented Chicago immigrants. The stark contrast in the government's response to different waves of migration has stirred discontent, with many expressing frustration at the lack of public aid and support they received when they arrived in the country.

This sentiment has manifested in protests against the establishment of shelters for new migrants, highlighting the palpable divide within immigrant communities. While some receive substantial government assistance, others who have been living in the U.S. for decades feel neglected and left to navigate their challenges without comparable support.

Angela Garcia, a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago, observes that undocumented immigrants from Mexico often find themselves relegated to the sidelines as other populations receive attention and assistance. The absence of comprehensive immigration reform since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has left many undocumented immigrants in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Efforts to address the legal status of the 11 million people living in the U.S. without authorization have faced significant hurdles, with the last major relief provided in 1986. The current political landscape suggests that substantial change may be elusive in the near future. Despite this, advocates like Erendira Rendon believe that the treatment of undocumented immigrants will influence upcoming elections and local politics, especially as U.S.-born children of these immigrants become eligible to vote.

A recent poll commissioned by the American Business Immigration Coalition indicates broad support for the expansion of work permits among voters in key states. The sentiment is particularly strong among Mexican American voters, Democrats, and U.S. citizens in mixed-status families, emphasizing the growing recognition of the economic and social contributions of undocumented workers.

As the "Work Permits for All" movement gains momentum, Juana Arreguin remains hopeful that the collective voice of undocumented workers will eventually lead to recognition and change. While she acknowledges the challenges ahead, she sees the effort as a worthwhile endeavor, driven by the belief that one day, the contributions of undocumented immigrants will be duly acknowledged.

Arreguin's faith in God sustains her hope, rooted in the desire to reunite with her elderly mother in Mexico. As she continues to advocate for equal opportunities, she exemplifies the resilience and determination that characterize the undocumented immigrant experience. In the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, where cultural diversity thrives, the call for equitable treatment transcends borders, echoing the broader national conversation on immigration reform and the pursuit of the American Dream for all.

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