Frustrated by the federal response to the migrant crisis, Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Tuesday that New York State was considering ways to issue work permits to asylum seekers in a bid to circumvent the long wait for permits at the federal level.
Such a drastic step would make New York the first state to openly test federal law, underscoring the depth of a crisis that has sent over 100,000 migrants to New York City over the past year.
The move, which would likely be challenged in court, could also escalate tensions between President Biden and Democratic leaders in New York, who have increasingly criticized his handling of the situation.
“This would be unprecedented,” Ms. Hochul said at a news conference in her Manhattan office. “I believe the federal government believes that we need to have their authority to move forward with state work permits, but, as I’ve said, we have to let them work.”
Lawmakers in Albany have introduced bills that would create a state-level worker permit program for individuals who have filed federal paperwork claiming asylum. Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, has not endorsed any particular bill and stressed that her lawyers were still exploring multiple ideas. She said she would meet with the state’s legislative leaders on Tuesday, and did not rule out calling a special session in Albany to pass legislation.
Earlier on Tuesday, White House officials pushed back against a state-level work permit system. In a call with reporters, senior administration officials said that work permits were “very clearly a federal authority,” adding that workarounds were “not something that we would encourage states to pursue.”
Instead, the officials said they were focused this month on helping the city and state accelerate the permit application process for migrants who were already eligible to work but had not yet filled out the necessary paperwork. The White House was unable to say how many migrants in the city are in that category, but said the number was substantial.
The officials spoke anonymously to discuss the Biden administration’s efforts to assist New York. The governor said on Tuesday that she had floated the idea during a meeting at the White House in late August with the president’s chief of staff, Jeff Zients; a White House spokesman declined to comment on the record about Ms. Hochul’s statement.
The debate around work permits comes at a critical moment for New York City. An estimated 59,000 migrants are still in city shelters. As space and resources dwindle, New York’s leaders are increasingly concerned services could buckle, with grave humanitarian and political implications.
Mayor Eric Adams said last week that he could see no end to the influx, warning that it “will destroy New York City.” Immigrant rights activists and left-leaning Democrats denounced the statement as xenophobic, but on Saturday the mayor cited the escalating costs as he ordered fresh rounds of budget cuts for every city agency.
Mr. Adams and Ms. Hochul have clamored for the federal government to take steps to speed up the issuance of work permits for migrants as a way for them to gain financial independence, while their cases are processed. Under federal law, migrants who apply for asylum must wait at least 180 days before receiving a work permit.
One state bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and State Senator Luis Sepulveda, both Democrats, would task the State Department of Labor with creating a temporary permitting program and issuing permits within 45 days after a person applies. The bill would allow both private and public sector employers to hire the asylum seekers.
“Let’s fight and find a way around the clear powers of the federal government versus the state,” Ms. Cruz said in an interview. “I think we came up with a with a bill that recognizes that in the instance of an emergency, the state has the power to do this.”
Both bill sponsors said they expected the bill to be challenged in court if passed, most likely by Republicans.
“We are in new territory here, but under the circumstances, we have to take a chance,” Mr. Sepúlveda said in an interview.
Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar, a Queens Democrat who introduced similar legislation, argued in a statement that there was legal precedent for localities to respond “in the absence of federal action,” citing the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco before its legalization at the federal level.
But immigration law experts said that such a permitting system would run afoul of federal immigration law.
“A court would be very likely to strike such a state permitting process down if it involves allowing private employers to use these state-issued work permits to hire recent migrants,” saidStephen W. Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell University.
Mr. Yale-Loehr and other immigration law experts have called for a different approach that they argue is allowed under federal law: having state governments hire asylum seekers directly. The University of California regents, for example, announced earlier this year that the university system would explore a way to hire students who lack legal status and work permits.
Nicholas Fandos and Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.