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Long Island's foreign migrants taking low-wage jobs to survive — most off the books

Women migrants on Long Island are finding employment in cleaning, babysitting, washing hair at beauty parlors, doing nails at salons and making clothing alterations.

Men are doing construction, washing dishes, working in restaurants, taking out garbage and heading out to jobs at farms and vineyards on the East End.


Most are working off the books. Some use Social Security numbers that don't belong to them, and some use their own — when they get them, said Arelis Figueroa, who described the sorts of jobs migrants do. Figueroa, who is lead pastor of La Iglesia del Pueblo on Manhattan's Upper West Side, works with some of the over 174,000 foreign migrants who have overwhelmed New York City’s intake system since spring 2022. Some have sought work on the Island.


Beneath the debate roiling New York and the nation over border control and immigrants' role in society and the workforce, there are the migrants themselves. Although most can't yet legally work — some may never be able to under current law — the migrants are doing what generations of immigrants have done before: seeking out and taking mostly lower-wage work.


WHAT TO KNOW

  • Most of the tens of thousands of foreign migrants who have arrived in the United States in the current wave aren't legally permitted to work.

  • The migrants are mostly working off the books — some are paid in cash, some use Social Security numbers that aren't theirs.

  • Jobs on Long Island include day labor, farming, child care, dishwashing, cooking, doing nails and construction work.


“They are in survival mode,” Figueroa said. “They will take any job.”


There is no estimate of how many of the current wave of migrants are working on Long Island.


Anthony Capote, a senior data and policy analyst at the pro-immigration, anti-restriction Immigration Research Initiative, has looked at the type of work migrants take, including those who have been arriving during the current crisis.


Migrants are likely to find work this summer on Suffolk farms, according to an immigration policy analyst. Above, a worker at a Brentwood farm in September 2021. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin


“It’s hard to get a sense of where exactly these folks are working, because a lot of folks are in legal limbo. Not everyone has work authorization right now,” Capote said. But he has a sense of the types of jobs they’re taking, based on data and past experience.


Types of jobs


The most common jobs, particularly among those who have arrived in the current wave, Capote said, are in service occupations: nannies, janitors, laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, retail store personnel, restaurant workers.


“Usually the way that it works when folks are coming to the U.S. for the first time is you find jobs in places where people you know are already working,” Capote said. “So, if you’ve got a cousin who’s working in construction, it’s very likely that you’re gonna get a job at a construction site.”


Of course, with day laborers, those in search of work congregate at a known spot and are picked up by employers.


Across industries, employers who hire migrants, especially those who are working off the books, are typically accustomed to operating on a mostly cash basis, Capote said.

“If you are running a restaurant on Long Island, it is very likely that you already have employees who are not documented, working as cooks and as bus staff, not necessarily because you don’t care, but because it’s a cash-only business,” Capote said.


This summer, he said, migrants likely will find work on the East End — at vineyards, on farms and at other agriculture and food businesses.


Because Long Island food delivery workers need a car — and a driver’s license — there tend to be fewer than in the city, where density and streets are favorable to delivery on two wheels.


In the city, Anderson Rios, a 23-year-old Venezuelan, says he and other migrants work for the food-delivery company DoorDash, which he says doesn’t ask for a driver’s license or other documents.


“We came here to work,” he said in Spanish as he stood outside the Roosevelt Hotel, the main migrant intake center, in midtown Manhattan, amid dozens of motorbikes lined up on 46th Street.


Rios said he was earning $100 to $150 a day, typically working from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. He said he was living in “the tents” at Floyd Bennett Field in southern Brooklyn with his wife, 28, and three children, ages 6, 11 and 14.


“The idea is to save enough money to get an apartment, to live well with my family, to look for a stable job,” he said.


Rios worked construction in Venezuela, he said, so it's an option, as is a cleaning job.

In Venezuela, he said, “I didn't see a future.”


Migrant Maria Bayas carries her baby on her back as she sells candy in the Grand Central subway station on Jan. 8. Credit: Ken Buffa

Elsewhere in the city, migrants are working for others or themselves. Some migrants — a few accompanied by their young children — are selling candy in the subways.


Figueroa said some of the migrants were professionals in their home countries — physicians, nurses, engineers, cops — but they lacked necessary credentials to do those jobs in the United States.


Verification required


Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul have urged the Biden administration to make it easier for migrants to work legally. But without a change in federal law, there are limits to how much a president can do. It’s illegal for an employer to hire noncitizen immigrants who lack legal permission to work.


Since a 1986 law, employers have been required to verify that an employee is legally allowed to work in the United States, now done via the I-9 form. Failing to produce the forms upon inspection can subject an employer to fines and criminal prosecution.


In 2021, President Joe Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, ended mass immigration raids on worksites, instead directing enforcement against employers who exploit workers hired illegally.


There are few ways that migrants can work legally. One is by filing an asylum application — which must be done within a year of crossing the U.S. border or the right is forfeited — then waiting 150 days and filing another form, for work authorization, and then waiting again.

(Ultimately, few asylum claims are likely to be successful — and being poor and wanting a better life isn’t a basis for asylum — but the process can take many years regardless.)


Another avenue, mainly for Venezuelans, is Temporary Protected Status, a 1990 humanitarian program established by Congress for migrants whose selected homelands are considered to be unsafe. The program, which Mayorkas extended to Venezuelans who crossed into the United States by July 31, 2023, unlocks a right to work, though processing times now average 14 months. 


Most of the migrants don't have legal permission to work — either because forms aren't filed or the applications haven't been processed.


18,000 NY jobs


In October, Hochul announced that nearly 400 employers across the state, with 18,000 jobs, had registered with the Department of Labor to be matched with potential jobs for migrants.

About 40,110 jobs at 1,042 businesses statewide are now available to migrants, according to department spokesman Beau Duffy. Of those, 346 businesses with 19,003 jobs are in New York City and 147 with 3,131 jobs are on Long Island, he said.


But the jobs aren’t limited to migrants; anyone can apply, Duffy said. He said the state wasn't tracking whether and how many of those jobs were being filled.


Hochul spokeswoman Maggie Halley said as of Jan. 26, the state had 13,310 work authorization applications completed, with 9,659 TPS applications completed.


The state also is considering a rule change to hire thousands of migrants — for those who are legally permitted to work — for government jobs such as equipment repairs, facilities management, office assistance and food service. There are 4,000 such jobs. English language requirements would be relaxed, as would those mandating work experience.


In New York City on Tuesday, Adams said he wished migrants would be allowed to fill hiring shortages, such as for municipal lifeguards.


“People need to work,” Adams said. “Nothing is more anti‑American than not having the right to work.”


Anne Williams-Isom, Adams’ deputy for health and human services, said the administration had a couple months ago examined the possibility of a city/state work permit.


“We're really anxious to see where this leads,” she said. “We know that they have a fact-finding committee right now that is looking at this to see if there's ways that they can use some of the civil service titles and give some relief to that, so that they can have some entry‑level migrants apply for some of those positions.” 


Rise in wage theft reports


In November, Hochul said federal law constricted the state's ability to issue work permits.

Still, immigrants are working, on and off the books.


Particularly among immigrant housecleaners, construction workers and landscapers, complaints about the number of employers shortchanging workers has been going up since last fall, said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a Hispanic-focused advocacy group.


Those claiming they were ripped off are a mix of immigrants who had come years ago, those who came recently, those who are authorized to work and those who aren't.

“We've seen the highest numbers of wage theft that we've ever seen,” she said, “the highest we've ever seen in 22 years.”


Wage-theft claims among all workers were 4,012 in 2023, 3,589 in 2022, 3,096 in 2021, 3,076 in 2020, 5,795 in 2019 and 6,757 in 2018, according to the labor department’s Duffy. About 85% of cases are resolved in favor of the complainant worker, he said.


Under New York law, it's not illegal to fire, or to refuse to hire, a person who isn't legally permitted to work in the United States. But minimum wage laws, and a prohibition against failing to fully pay a worker what's been promised, apply to everyone regardless of whether the worker is legally permitted to work in the United States. 


“Whether you're documented or not,” Perez said, “it is unlawful to rob people's wages.” 

In the city, officials know migrants are working, both legally and illegally.


Gale Brewer, a city councilwoman representing Manhattan, said in June: “People are getting jobs — legal or illegal — I don’t care; they’re working.”


Adams has said “a substantial number” were working illegally off the books and being exploited.


“They're probably doing working conditions that are unfair. … They may be working for less than minimum wage,” he said. “I mean, you put a man or woman in a desperate situation, they're gonna do the best that they can to survive.


“And so a substantial number of them, I believe, are being exploited, are being mistreated, because they're trying to provide for their families, and they are doing the best they can like you and I would do.”


With David Olson


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