Undocumented immigrants here for decades ask Biden for work permits: can it be done?

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Many recently arrived Venezuelans celebrated when the Biden administration granted those who were eligible the chance to work in the United States. Consuelo Martinez said she felt deep sadness.

Martinez, originally from Mexico, and her husband have worked in the U.S. for 27 years, without permission and in constant fear of being caught by immigration officers, she said by phone in Spanish.

“When I heard that my Venezuelan brothers and sisters, the president, overnight, gave them permission to work, I became sad. I became very, very sad,” Martinez said. “I cried. I cried because I am 27 years waiting in line, 27 years, so that they can give me permission to work, so I can go to work without fear, I can work calmly, without stress.”

Martinez had traveled to Washington from Chicago on Tuesday along with hundreds of other immigrants, employers and advocates. Organizers said 2,219 people were bused in. They marched to Lafayette Square across from the White House to ask President Joe Biden to use his executive powers to give them a chance to get work permits, as well.

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The rally comes amid a lack of any congressional legislation on immigration and decades of Republican legal challenges to expanding work permits and deferred deportations for immigrants who lack legal status but have spent decades living and working in the U.S.

In September, Biden extended Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans here since before July 31, which authorizes them to work.

Biden was responding to pressure from New York and other cities that have been struggling to house, clothe and feed the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who have left political and economic upheaval in their country.

While the action opened a relief valve for cities and immigration advocates, it left undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long time — and who have been hoping for Congress or one of multiple presidents to give them a similar privilege — to wonder, what about us?

But Biden cannot extend Temporary Protected Status, which is granted to people whose countries have experienced disasters or political upheavals, to all immigrants, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and the director of its New York University School of Law office.

Biden has allowed Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans into the U.S. through humanitarian parole because of situations in their countries and the rising numbers of people from them arriving at the border. But Republicans are challenging the action in court, making an extension to another group risky, Chishti said.

Advocates also propose providing work permits to immigrants through a program like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allowed younger immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to work and study in two-year intervals. But Republicans have also challenged DACA, and a separate program President Barack Obama created for parents of undocumented children, known as DAPA, was short-circuited by the courts.

"One supports this as a moral issue, but there's no legal basis for doing it," Chishti said. "The president cannot give authorization unless he has an underlying authority for the category that is eligible for compensation."

Groups that participated in the rally, including business groups, point out that the country is experiencing labor shortages that could give Biden the justification to expand work permits to immigrants who lack legal status.

“For many of our employers, trying to legalize the undocumented workforce is a North Star,” said Rebecca Shi, the executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, “and seeing the president is able to grant work permits to the new migrants has really excited us — can you also extend that to the long-term undocumented immigrants who have been picking our crops, cooking delicious meals, designing and constructing homes and even semiconductors?”

More than any other administration, Shi said, Biden's has provided work permits to new migrants — Venezuelans, Cubans, Ukrainians and others.

"This has shown us, including the employers, that there is broad legal authority from the president," said Shi, whose group was leading the "Here to Work" march and campaign.

About 11.2 million people lived in the U.S. without legal permission in 2021, having either entered the country without permission or stayed after visas expired, said the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. The majority are adults. While that was a slight increase over 2019, the undocumented population has hovered at about 11 million for 15 years, it reported.

Of those, 63% had been in the U.S. a decade or more, 43% for 15 or more years and about 22% for 20 or more years.

Congress has, over almost the same time, become increasingly divided over immigration and allowed the undocumented workforce to grow, stymied by groups' differences and unable to reconcile itself with the always changing dynamics of immigration.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of decades, the numbers of people arriving at the border have spiked, with more arrivals from countries other than Mexico than in the past. In addition, more migrants are surrendering to immigration officials and asking for asylum.

Shi said the permits are doable if Biden deals with the undocumented population in buckets, giving the chance to work first to the approximately 1.1 million undocumented people married to U.S. citizens, the same way the government already allows spouses of members of the military to work and become citizens.

Then he could allow work permits and deportation deferrals for 1.2 million immigrants who have been in the country since they were children, often called Dreamers, who do not have DACA status and are graduating from high school and college but cannot work legally. He could also provide permits to hundreds of thousands of agriculture workers, and so on.

Sergio Suarez, an entrepreneur with 14 businesses of various types, said some migrants have worked 30 years in the U.S. and still do not have Social Security cards to permit them to work. Suarez is an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the U.S. for 47 years.

Some in Congress had pressed the administration for worker permits for Venezuelans and are pushing for the same for others. At the rally, Rep. Jesús "Chuy" García, D-Ill., insisted Biden had the authority to provide the work permits for immigrants who have been here for years.

"We recognize that immigration reform has eluded Congress for 36 years," Garcia said at the rally, reminding the crowd he is the son of braceros, the name for mostly Mexican immigrants who worked in the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1960s, largely in agriculture, to ease labor shortages beginning in World War II.

"People want to continue to work in peace. They want to be able to go to work without fear of deportation or being apprehended," he said. "Those are the asks that we make of President Biden and this White House."

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com