Government Data Reveal Millions of New Work Permits Issued Since 2009

By Jessica Vaughan February 2015

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Jessica M. Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Government data (click here to download Excel file) reveal that more than 7.4 million work permits (formally known as Employment Authorization Documents) were issued to aliens from 2009 to 2014. Because neither lawful permanent residents (green card holders) nor temporary work visa holders need a work permit, this amounts to a huge parallel immigrant work authorization system outside the numerical limits and categories set by Congress. The huge number of work permits being issued above and beyond these limits inevitably reduces opportunities for U.S. workers, damages the integrity of the immigration system, and encourages illegal immigration.

Approximately 2.1 million work permits were issued to aliens with temporary visas or who entered under the Visa Waiver Program. Of these, about 1.4 million (66 percent) had a visa status for which employment is generally prohibited under the law, except in what are supposed to be rare cases. For example, more than 548,000 work permits were issued to aliens on tourist visas and 593,000 were issued to foreign students. More than 213,000 were issued to dependents of students and guestworkers — all categories in which the law prohibits employment except in rare circumstances.

Of the total, 1.1 million work permits were issued to aliens who have a legal status that leads directly to a green card. These were primarily refugees (420,000), fiancés of U.S. citizens (150,000), and approved asylum applicants (243,000).

More than 2.2 million work permits were issued over this time period to illegal aliens or aliens unqualified for admission. Nearly all of these (2.1 million) were illegal aliens who crossed the border illegally (Entered Without Inspection). Inexplicably, 2,860 work permits were issued to aliens who were denied asylum, were suspected of using fraudulent documents, were stowaways, or were refused at a port of entry.

About 129,000 were issued to aliens who were granted parole to enter the United States. Grants of parole are supposed to be used very sparingly to allow the admission of an ineligible or unqualified alien for exceptionally compelling humanitarian reasons, such as emergency medical care or for a purpose that is important to the national interest.

A huge number of work permits, 1.9 million, were issued to aliens whose status was unknown, not recorded by the adjudicator, or not disclosed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that processes the applications. This should be a concern; work permits are a gateway document to driver's licenses and other benefits, and if the government agency issuing them does not know or will not disclose how the bearer arrived in the country, how can others rely on the authenticity of this individual's identity? If the government does know, and chooses not to disclose it, that is equally concerning.

These statistics were obtained from USCIS in a Freedom of Information Act request. Status classifications are based on information from the work permit application that is entered into USCIS databases. The agency provided the majority of the data classified according to the immigration status furnished by the applicant.

TPS and DACA Likely Counted in Unknown/Unreported. A large number of cases were classified as Unknown or Unreported. This may be because these cases were processed using a different case management system. For example, cases approved under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs are not apparent in this data. According to sources, these two types of cases are processed using a separate case management system and this may explain why they were not identifiable in the data set. For this reason, it appears that TPS and DACA cases are counted in the Unknown/Unreported line item, not according to the applicants' immigration status at time of entry. This would mean that the large number of work permits issued to aliens who entered illegally or on tourist visas are in addition to the illegal aliens who have received work permits under TPS or DACA.

Of the total number of work permits issued from 2009-2014, 4.7 million were first-time issuances and 2.7 million were renewals of expired work permits. For details on the breakdown of initial issuances and renewals by category, click here to download Excel file.

Fastest Growing Categories. The fastest growth in issuances over the time period were to aliens classified as tourists, foreign students, dependents of temporary workers, and illegal aliens. Annual issuances to these categories doubled from 2009 to 2014.

Work Permits Allow Prospective Immigrants to Jump in Line. Traditionally, work permits have been issued with little controversy to aliens in transition to a legal status, such as an approved applicant for asylum.

Other scenarios are more controversial. For example, many work permits are being issued to aliens who have a temporary legal status and who are being sponsored for a green card through marriage or employment. The law allows this only for aliens who have maintained a legal status (although these numbers raise concerns if the law is being followed for illegal aliens adjusting with the Obama administration's provisional waivers). USCIS typically approves the work permit even if the alien's green card has not yet been approved, and even if the alien is years away from actually submitting the application due to the numerical limits and waiting lists in many categories. When USCIS allows these aliens to receive a work permit, it is essentially letting these future applicants jump in line before other sponsored future immigrants who are waiting their turn in their home countries. Even worse, when USCIS allows hundreds of thousands of aliens who entered with tourist visas or visa waivers to game the system in this way, with the likelihood that the aliens lied to consular officers or port of entry inspectors, the agency is directly undermining the integrity of the legal immigration and entry system and the rules established by Congress.

Work Permits Launder Status of Illegal Aliens. The most controversial issuance of work permits has been to large groups of aliens, usually present illegally. The most well known instances are the TPS and DACA programs, but the data show that apparently there are about a million other illegal aliens who have been issued work permits. These are most likely aliens who have been arrested by ICE or the Border Patrol and put into lengthy deportation proceedings, asylum applicants, aliens released on an order of supervision, other categories of prosecutorial discretion, and aliens who cannot be removed to their home countries.

The proportion of initial issuances to the total is an indication of whether the work permits issued in that category are transitional or short-term in nature. In general, illegal aliens were by far the category most likely to be granted renewal of work authorization, indicating that they are in the country without legal status for years.

These statistics indicate that the executive branch is operating a huge parallel immigrant work authorization system outside the bounds of the laws and limits written by Congress. Millions of work permits are being issued to illegal aliens and aliens admitted legally, but in a non-work authorized category. This practice represents an abuse of executive authority that inevitably reduces job opportunities for Americans. In addition, allowing work permits to be issued to illegal aliens and temporary visitors damages the integrity of the legal immigration system and encourages illegal immigration.

UPDATE (February 16, 2015): The figures in this report have been updated to correct for a spreadsheet error. The initial data we received from USCIS incorrectly stated that the total number of work permits issued in these years was 5.5 million. We regret the error.

The corrected data include new issuances (4.7 million) and renewals of expired work permits (2.7 million), and a breakdown of the number of work permits issued to aliens with temporary and permanent status, illegal aliens, and aliens whose status is unknown.