President Trump issued a presidential proclamation earlier this week that will further restrict many temporary work visas. With much less fanfare, the administration will also publish a final rule this week that, among other things, would delay issuing work permits to people claiming asylum for a full year. The final rule will expand the period that an applicant for asylum must wait before receiving work authorization from the current 180 days to 365 days.
Pending asylum claims can take up to several years to resolve, a situation made more precarious by a backlog of almost 1.2 million cases in immigration court and other changes to the asylum system. It’s important that asylum‐seekers in the United States be able to legally work to support themselves in the meantime as the only other alternatives are welfare, charity, illegal employment, or crime. Surely legal work authorization is preferable to those other options.
One possible effect of delaying access to work permits is that some asylum‐seekers could turn to crime to support themselves. Not being able to work legally would lower their opportunity‐cost of committing crime. Immigrants in the United States, whether legally present or illegally present, are much less crime‐prone than native‐born Americans. One reason for that is their high rate of participation in the labor market. Even illegal immigrants are less crime‐prone than natives. But that could shift for asylum‐seekers if they must wait longer for a work permit.
The best evidence for this comes from Switzerland. Swiss Cantons have different labor market policies for asylum‐seekers, some granting work permits quickly and others that delay issuing them for years. Looking specifically at asylum seekers who were exposed to war as young children, economists Mathieu Couttenier, Veronica Petrencu, Dominic Rohner, and Mathias Thoenig found that they are about 35 percent more prone to violent crime than the average cohort of asylum seekers. They found that economic opportunities for these asylum‐seekers, which depends on their access to work permits in different Cantons, lessens their propensity to commit crime later in life. Civics classes and integration courses also help, but not as much as legal access to the labor market.
Another paper by economists Brian Bell, Francesco Fasani, and Stephen Machin looked at two different waves of immigrants into the United Kingdom. The first was of asylum‐seekers in the late 1990s and early 2000s who were legally barred from working. The second wave was Europeans from countries that joined the European Union in 2004 who could legally work in the United Kingdom. The presence of asylum‐seekers in the earlier wave was associated, to a statistically significant extent, with an increase in property crime. The settlement of the second wave was associated with a slight decline in crime. A higher opportunity cost of committing crime because of legal access to labor markets reduced crime led to the second wave being associated with less crime.
Another example comes from the United States and, although it’s not about asylum‐seekers, it illustrates the general point that legal work authorization for immigrant increases the opportunity cost of them committing crimes. Economists Matthew Freedman, Emily Owens, and Sarah Bohn looked at how illegal immigrant residents in San Antonio, Texas were more likely to be arrested for felony property crimes after the amnesty of 1986 (IRCA). That law granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in the United States but it also made it illegal to employ illegal immigrants (it was legal for illegal immigrants to be employed in the United States prior to IRCA). Illegal immigrants who didn’t qualify for the amnesty then faced more legal barriers to working and, if they did so, wages that were 12–24 percent lower because IRCA confined them to the black market. As a result, they were more likely to commit property crimes because the law barred them from working and imposed severe economic penalties when they did. We found a similar result when looking at the inflow of non‐citizens into Arizona prisons following the enactment of E‐Verify in the state.
All of this suggests that increasing the amount of time that asylum‐seekers must wait for a work‐permit could increase their propensity to commit crime. Immigrant crime is a serious concern even though they are less likely to do so than native‐born Americans. Instead of imposing a longer wait for asylum‐seekers to work and, thereby, reducing the opportunity cost of engaging in criminal behavior for them, the government should change the law and reduce the wait time for a work‐permit. Reducing crime is an important public policy goal. If the government can do so by granting more work‐permits sooner than it should but, at a very minimum, it shouldn’t seek to lengthen the wait time.