Out of work and running out of time, migrants struggle to find jobs in Chicago


Matthew Anderson, 19, right, watches Rayni Cuadrado, 29, of Venezuela, change a drill bit on Jan. 11, 2024, while clearing debris from a broken doorway at New Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood after it was broken into. Cuadrado, who had been going to Home Depot every day for a month, said it was his first substantial job after arriving in the U.S in November.

After a month of standing in Home Depot parking lots in Chicago hoping to find work, Rayni Cuadrado had finally found a day job.

The 29-year-old from Maracaibo, Venezuela, moved metal scrap and took measurements Thursday inside a decimated church in North Lawndale. He had once dreamed of studying art in his home country, he said, but due to the political and social unrest there, he instead walked to the United States with his daughter to find work.

Like countless other groups of migrants and undocumented workers across the city, Cuadrado has been getting up at 5 a.m. every day for the past month to stand in parking lots and wait to be picked for day labor jobs. When a vehicle drives by, he says there is a rush. People want to find work so badly they will push each other.

“This is my first job in America. The majority of people don’t want to hire us,” he said.

While he’s living in a city shelter now, he hopes to make enough money to find an apartment for himself and his 4-year-old daughter. But he isn’t part of the group of migrants who qualify for a work permit authorization.

Thousands of people who have arrived in the city since August 2022 — when Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending asylum-seekers to sanctuary cities like Chicago — have been shut out of an initiative to help migrants get work permits. The program, launched in November by a coalition of federal, state, and local governments and advocacy groups, has only made a small dent in the number of people even applying for work permits, much less getting them.

Organizers call the program a “one-stop-shop work authorization clinic,” assisting migrants with the daunting application process for a permit and waiving the nearly $500 fee. But it is only available to migrants who entered the country legally with humanitarian parole or were granted the opportunity to apply for temporary legal status by President Joe Biden, and who are staying in one of the city’s 28 shelters.

The state had the goal of submitting roughly 11,000 applications for eligible asylum-seekers residing in Chicago shelters by February, according to a Nov. 16 news release from the governor’s office. But Eréndira Rendón, vice president of immigrant justice at Resurrection Project — which spearheaded the program — said only 1,655 people have registered for the program and a few hundred have been approved.

Of more than 34,500 migrants who have arrived in Chicago, thousands like Cuadrado are left out of the legal pathway for employment, forced to find alternative options they say are unreliable and often risky and less lucrative.

While only a fraction of the people in shelters qualify for work permits, most people outside shelters don’t qualify either or can’t afford to apply. Migrants who can’t make enough in their home countries to live have decided to walk thousands of miles for economic opportunity, only to face a bureaucracy in the United States that prevents the vast majority of them from being legally hired.

‘I just want to get a good job so I can move forward’

Cuadrado took almost four months to make it to the border between the United States and Mexico. He said he and his daughter witnessed crime and violence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, that was almost worse than in his home country of Venezuela: kidnappings, shootings, and threats.

He said he couldn’t stay in Juárez waiting for his online immigration appointment because it felt unsafe. The day before they left Mexico, he said, 16 people were taken from the house where they were staying. Nine disappeared.

Rayni Cuadrado, left, of Venezuela, and pastor Markel Anderson remove broken light panels on Jan. 11, 2024, from a room at New Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church in the North Lawndale neighborhood after it was broken into.

Fleeing for their lives, they crossed illegally, bypassing the Customs and Border Protection’s CBP One app — an official mobile application the agency uses to inspect and document arrivals and departures in the United States. As a result, Cuadrado doesn’t qualify for the program established by the city.

Many migrants like Cuadrado and his daughter cross illegally without using the app, which they say is cumbersome and can take weeks or months. There were thousands of illegal crossings along the southern border in December alone, according to Ruben García, director of Annunciation House, a migrant shelter in El Paso, Texas.

Migrants who enter illegally can technically file for asylum and apply for a work permit 150 days later, but migrants and their advocates say the process is long, confusing, and expensive. Many know there is a chance they won’t be granted asylum, so they may prefer to stay under the radar.

Experts speculate that without more federal action, the migrants recently arriving in Chicago without the app will likely fold into existing undocumented communities who have worked under the table for decades.

“It’s so hard, I’ve even thought about going home to Venezuela,” Cuadrado said on Thursday. “I just want to get a good job so I can move forward.”

Program requirements

Rendón said only 30% of migrants who live in shelters qualify for the new program.

“After digging more into it, actually the population (that qualifies for work permits) looks to be closer to about 4,600 people,” she said.

Venezuelans who entered before July 31 and applied for temporary protected status may be eligible for work permits. Migrants who have been paroled — which is a separate program — may also be eligible.

Humanitarian parole is a measure expanded by the Biden administration in October 2022 that allows more migrants from countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua to temporarily enter the United States and apply for relief. This group must have entered with the CBP One app, unlike Cuadrado.

He said he watches others at the shelter where he’s staying receive help from the program.

“I’m so worried because we were told we need to leave the shelter on March 4 and I don’t have work,” Cuadrado said. “I spend all day outside, and my fingers freeze.”

A record number of migrants have crossed the southern border this year seeking employment and opportunities in the United States, pitting Republicans and Democrats against one another in national congressional debates about how to best respond to thousands of people who are in desperate need of shelter, food, and health care.

Most are from Venezuela, a country with a buckling economy under a far-left leader, made worse by over a decade of sanctions imposed by the United States on crude oil and gas exports.

Migrants fill Home Depot parking lots waiting for day labor jobs. They stand on street corners with cardboard signs. They sell candy outside businesses to make small amounts of money.

For months, migrant advocates and mayors of cities like Chicago have asked President Joe Biden to give migrants the chance to contribute to the economy legally.

In September, facing mounting pressure, Biden gave some migrants, whose home countries are considered unsafe, the right to live and work in the United States for a temporary period. That protection, called temporary protected status, applies to an estimated 11,000 Venezuelans in Chicago who arrived in the country before July 31 — and it fast-tracks their approval to work legally.

At the time, migrant advocates celebrated but warned that it would take a long time to make its way into city-run shelters.

Work authorization applications are long and extensive. Just one application asks for pages of documentation in English, and costs close to $500, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

‘We can barely afford to buy anything’

Cuadrado said he had found his job Thursday with the help of God.

Denzel Johnson, 29, owner of the construction company Need a Hand LLC drove by a Home Depot in the West Loop in a white car. A group of migrants came over to him, and he explained using Google Translate that he needed help cleaning up a church in North Lawndale that had been destroyed.

Cuadrado and David Avendano, 25, were offered the work. They rode in the back of Johnson’s Audi to the site.

Johnson said the church had been broken into and wrecked. The perpetrator had pulled ceiling panels down and taken metal from the frames, exposing decades-old ornate floral tiling.

Whoever had broken in had stolen everything of value, including the broom. They had cut the cord on the vacuum and the wires on the organ. Dust and debris covered the velvet red carpet. Metal hung from the ceiling.

Rayni Cuadrado, 29 and from Venezuela, measures a broken door behind the New Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church, Jan. 11, 2024.

“That’s what happens to churches on the West Side,” said the owner, pastor Markel Anderson, 25, who grew up sitting in the pews of the church.

The building had been in his family for 35 years, and he inherited it from his grandfather. It was under renovation when it was broken into. The damage would take at least a year to fix, he said.

When asked about why he gave the migrants the opportunity to work, Anderson said he wanted to help.

“Jesus was a migrant,” he said.

Cuadrado said other employers weren’t always friendly. People he knew at the shelter where he’s staying had worked for weeks at a different church and weren’t ever paid. He hoped Anderson would give him a fair amount for the day’s work, but they hadn’t discussed wages yet.

With the language barrier, the men communicated using hand gestures.

The migrants spent the afternoon clipping metal trappings that hung from the ceiling, drilling holes in doors, and picking up scraps in the cold church and the yard outside.

“They said they want us to come back (Friday), too,” said Cuadrado, and his face lit up.

Avendano said he had been in Chicago about a week and also didn’t qualify for a work permit. He has three children under the age of 8 staying in the city-run shelter with him. Yesterday, he spent an hour moving beds at a different church and was paid $25.

“How am I going to feed my family?” he asked, worried. “Food is so expensive. We can barely afford to buy anything.”

‘Everyone in the same room’

David Fish, an employment lawyer and partner at Fish Potter Bolaños PC, said migrants without work permits face more exploitation or abuse in the workplace, and likely make around 30% less than those who can work legally.

He said businesses and restaurants need workers right now.

“Think of all the businesses and restaurants that have shut down, and all these people desperate for work sitting around, having trouble finding jobs,” he said. “Somebody needs to get these two sides together. It could really be great for Chicago.”

To do so, state, city, and local officials launched their pilot program in early November to help abate the costs and ease the bureaucratic hoops of the work permit approval process, which normally takes two to four months or longer, experts say. Lawyers from the nonprofit Resurrection Project said it has both sped up the process and made it more affordable.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting local jurisdictions hosting recently arrived migrants, that is why President Biden submitted supplemental funding requests to Congress which address a series of national priorities, including … funding for accelerating the processing of work permits for eligible migrants,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to the Tribune.

The pilot program is “unique” in design, said Elizabeth Rompf Bruen, an immigration attorney with Delgado Rompf Bruen LLC and the immediate past chair of the Chicago Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who has worked in the clinics since they began in November.

“These parties often work together, but to have everyone in the same room is something I’ve never seen before,” she said. “This workshop has been a perfect example of the progress that can be made when legal advocates, community members and the government — city, state, and federal — coordinate with each other.”

Normally, submitting applications to USCIS is a multiple-step process. In this case, legal screening, translations, application preparation, submission, initial review by the government, receipt issuance, and photos and fingerprints for biometrics processing all take place on the same day in the same location.

Having all parties in the same room creates efficiencies that will save applicants and the government months of waiting time. Rompf Bruen said they typically see 100 to 150 people a day, four days a week.

Case managers at city shelters conduct intake screenings and then schedule legal review and application preparation appointments. Migrants are picked up and brought to the clinic in a building downtown, where they fill out paperwork and are connected to potential employers.

The Illinois Department of Human Services provides $8 million in funding to support nonprofits and pro bono attorneys who run the legal clinics, according to Rachel Otwell, a spokesperson for IDHS. The federal government has also waived all $500 fees for work permit applications in shelters.

“Work permits allow asylum-seekers to gain employment and achieve self-sufficiency, thereby alleviating the strain on state resources,” said Otwell in a statement. “Employment is a crucial first step to living independently, and our new arrivals are eager to get to work and build better lives for themselves and their families.”

A ‘lifesaving document’

Undocumented immigrants for years have struggled to find avenues to work legally. They also gather in parking lots waiting for jobs and are now competing for day labor with migrants.

“The government has created options for and has been able to expedite work permits for recently arrived. But you have a lot of longtime undocumented in Illinois in Chicago for whom these aren’t viable options,” said Katherine Greenslade, an attorney and the director of the Immigrant Justice Legal Clinic at the Resurrection Project.

Rendón called a work permit a “lifesaving document.”

She said she hopes Biden can use his parole authority to grant work authorization eligibility to undocumented communities who have been in Chicago for decades. Ultimately, she wonders if the pilot program can serve as a blueprint to reach all immigrant communities in Chicago who want to work but can’t.

In mid-February, the city hopes to expand the program to migrants who have moved out of the city’s shelter system and don’t currently qualify. For now, those outside the shelter system have been relying on smaller community-based organizations for assistance.

Centro Romero in Edgewater has provided legal services and resources to more than 4,000 migrants since August 2022, according to Diego F. Samayoa, associate director.

Samayoa said there is a high need to expand the criteria for fee waivers for programs like his, which don’t look like the city’s one-stop-shop.

“We are doing it, but it’s not like we have all the resources,” he said.

‘People always ask me if I have my work permit’

Every day, migrants across the city spend hours looking for work, often with no luck.

A father from Venezuela stood outside a Home Depot in freezing rain Tuesday afternoon holding his thumb out. He said had been looking for work for more than six hours.

Nelson Orellana, 30, shook a hand warmer for heat and watched a shiny Range Rover drive by. His daughter had turned eight years old the day before and he said he missed it. As he stood on a curb in Chicago, she was seven countries away.

“My little Sofia,” he said, tearing up.

Nelson Orellana, 30, of Venezuela, stands in the rain Jan. 9, 2024, while waiting for work in a Home Depot parking lot in Chicago.

Orellana said he came to Chicago for the future of his 8-year-old daughter, Sofia, and 6-year-old daughter, Victoria. He got to the city with the help of a free ticket bought by state officials in Eagle Pass, Texas, and is staying at a shelter in West Town.

“There was no future for my family in Venezuela. I struggled to pay for food. My daughters weren’t receiving an education,” said Orellana, who said he worked in construction in his subtropical home city of Valencia.

Wind and ice whipped his face. ”Hello, help me with something, to eat or work. Job please job,” read a cardboard sign that lay discarded in the bushes nearby.

At one point in the rainy cold afternoon, a car pulled over to talk to Orellana. The man driving rolled the window down.

“What kind of work are you looking for?” the man asked in Spanish.

Orellana walked over and leaned in to talk to him. Orellana showed the man videos of himself painting and doing little jobs — which he called “trabajitos.” The man told him he would give him a call in three hours, and drove away.

“People always ask me if I have my work permit. And when I tell them I don’t, they say they can’t hire me. They can’t help me,” he said.

He stood on the side of the road, shivering. He wore thin pants and white sneakers.

“I will bring them here,” he said about his two daughters.

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