‘I need to eat’: Venezuelan migrants take first steps in Ga. labor market

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Venezuelan asylum seekers don’t have work permits yet, but they say they can’t afford not to work. Advocates worry they will be taken advantage of.

By the time he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and arrived to Atlanta in late August, Klinsman Torres had exhausted his savings. The Venezuelan migrant’s most immediate priority was to find work.

“Nothing is below me,” he said. “Work is work.”

In the past, Torres had worked in kitchens and on construction sites. He cleaned bathrooms. In Atlanta, he quickly found work as a gardener on a golf course. Now, he works in a hotel.

Torres is among the dozens of destitute Venezuelan migrants who made their way to Atlanta in the late summer and early fall when U.S. immigration policies were allowing them entry into the country. But the pace of the arrivals quickly overwhelmed local assistance agencies. Since then, migrants’ gradual absorption into the local workforce has brought about a much-coveted source of income. But their status as undocumented workers in a state with relatively few labor protections worries advocates, who warn that migrants could find themselves in dangerous work settings or exploitative situations.

Explore‘On the cusp of a crisis:’ Migrants make their way to Atlanta from border

“The more vulnerable the worker, the more likely they’re going to be working in a very hazardous industry. And the more likely they’re going to be working in the most hazardous jobs in that industry,” said Shelly Anand, executive director of the Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and workers’ rights non-profit based in Atlanta.

Few industries pose a bigger risk to workers’ health than meatpacking: According to a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch, workers at meat and poultry processing plants suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the U.S. But that hasn’t fazed Frank Ruiz.

In September, the Venezuelan migrant got off early from a New York-bound bus paid for by the Texas government. Figuring New York City was becoming too crowded with his countrymen, he was instead drawn to Atlanta, the only other U.S. city whose name he recognized. After spending a week looking for work in the metro area, he traveled to Gainesville with three other Venezuelan migrants. They had been offered night shifts at a poultry processing plant, earning $15 per hour.

“A lot of places [in Atlanta] were asking for a work permit. But here no one has asked for anything. They’re giving us an opportunity,” he said. “We just got here. We need stable work.”

The majority of the most recent Venezuelan arrivals to the U.S. are planning to file for asylum, but many may be unable to qualify. Coming to the U.S. in search of economic opportunity is no grounds for asylum.

How asylum works

Asylum is a protected immigration status for migrants who are able to prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries based on their race, religion, nationality, politics, or membership in a particular social group.

As they await a decision on their asylum case, migrants can apply for work authorization. But because of a mandatory waiting period, it can ultimately take well over a year for asylum seekers to get their hands on a permit.

Carolina Antonini is a local immigration attorney. She says that waiting periods keeping work permits out of reach were put in place to dissuade people with flimsy asylum claims from coming to the U.S. in the first place. In practice, though, the effect has been to “basically create a labor pool that is under the table.”

When Wielder Estrella arrived to Atlanta via the southern border in late August, he spent his first night in the city sleeping in the parking lot of the Latin American Association, where he and two other migrants had gone to seek humanitarian assistance. He says people in his position can’t afford to wait over a year before searching for work. In Georgia, there are no shelters or assistance agencies that provide long-term housing specifically geared to migrants like Estrella.

“I need to put food on the table. I need to eat. I need money to hire” an immigration attorney, said Estrella, who is currently working in an area barbershop. “I realize it’s illegal for me to work, but there’s no other way. And I’m not stealing. I’m not doing anything bad … I just hope God protects me until I get my papers.”

Estrella, Torres and Ruiz didn’t reveal the names of their employers to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Over the fall, posts on Facebook groups for Atlanta-area immigrants reflected Venezuelan migrants’ desire to start working as soon as possible. “I need to find work immediately,” wrote a Venezuelan migrant. “I don’t speak English but I really want to work,” wrote another.

According to Anand, undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation because they are unlikely to know about their rights as an employee or turn to law enforcement in the face of abuse. Threats of deportation from employers can dissuade them from reporting wage theft or workplace injuries.

“People don’t really think about what it means to have this influx of immigrants and how they can really be preyed upon by unscrupulous employers,” she said.

The situation in Georgia

For asylum seekers, the difficulty of obtaining a work permit is a nationwide reality.

Those who settle in Georgia face additional challenges, advocates say. Here, there are fewer nonprofits serving immigrants and fewer pro-bono immigration lawyers than in states like New York, for instance. The risk of deportation may also be greater: Five Georgia counties are enrolled in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that deputizes local law enforcement to act as immigration agents. That includes Hall County, where migrants who get jobs in the poultry industry are likely to live.

“Workers don’t stay in Atlanta necessarily. They’re going to go up into more rural areas where we have the carpet industry, the poultry industry, farm labor jobs, and those are very anti-immigrant areas. They’re not safe spaces for these workers,” Anand said.

There’s also the fact that Georgia’s immigration court judges tend to turn down the overwhelming majority of asylum cases they handle, making them national outliers.

In October, the Biden administration turned to a Trump-era public health rule to quickly turn away migrants from Venezuela who unlawfully crossed the border. Border crossers from most other nations were already being subject to that policy.

But a federal judge struck down that Trump-era rule on Nov. 15. When that decision becomes effective in late December, it will likely lead to an increase in border crossings, according to experts. More people could find themselves swelling the ranks of the informal economy in Georgia and across the country.

“I think we have to come up with some sort of solution around getting folks work permits so that they can legally work while they figure out their immigration cases,” Anand said.