Could newly arrived migrants legally work in Kansas City? It’ll depend on their status

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas drew both praise and criticism last week with comments about migrant laborers’ potential role in the city’s job market.

Lucas told business news outlet Bloomberg that more workers are needed in the metro area, suggesting that new arrivals from other countries could help fill the gap.

“If there are people who are willing and ready to work, then I believe that there could be a place for them,” he told the site. He later clarified on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he is referring to “persons who are lawfully present, with lawful work permits, and the lawful ability to come to our community.”

But in some cases, migrants are forced to wait months before they can even apply for work authorization. Some state and local officials argue that admitting migrants to the country without authorizing them to work legally has contributed to the strain on social services in some cities, without helping to fill their labor shortages.

Here’s a closer look at how migrants get approval to live and work in the U.S.

What is a migrant?

“Migrant” is an umbrella term used for people who move within or out of their home countries for a wide variety of reasons, including economic opportunity, fleeing persecution, seeking asylum or reuniting with family.

Some, but not all, migrants intend to stay in their new country permanently. The term “immigrant” usually means a migrant who intends to settle in their new country and potentially obtain permanent residency and citizenship.

What legal statuses might migrants have?

Migrants can have a wide variety of immigration statuses, from those on student visas to internationally recognized refugees. But three of the major statuses seen arriving recently in some large cities are humanitarian parolees, asylum-seekers and those with Temporary Protected Status.

These individuals’ documents allow them to be in the U.S. at least temporarily but don’t automatically grant them permission to work here.

Humanitarian parole is a temporary status that allows non-citizens to live in the U.S., but doesn’t necessarily include a path to permanent residency. The federal government generally requires proof that someone in the U.S. has agreed to financially support the parolee before issuing parole documents.

Humanitarian parole has expanded under President Joe Biden, leading to political divisions over how it should be used. It is granted at the discretion of the federal government for reasons including escaping dangerous conditions and “significant public benefits,” like being an important witness in a court case.

Parole typically lasts one year or less, and ends when the parolee leaves the U.S. or obtains an official immigration status.

Temporary Protected Status is a type of residency available to people from countries that the U.S. government has determined are experiencing armed conflict or a recent natural disaster. This designation does not automatically include a pathway to permanent status in the U.S.

Currently, only people from Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, Cameroon, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen are eligible for Temporary Protected Status.

Asylum-seekers are those in the process of obtaining asylum in the U.S. due to the threat of persecution in their home countries. Applicants must be able to prove that they personally face a threat due to protected qualities like their race, gender, religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation.

Unlike the categories above, successful asylum cases generally carry authorization to stay in the U.S. permanently. But until asylum is officially granted, applicants can be left in a limbo state with few resources.

How do migrants get authorized to work?

In order to work legally in the U.S, almost all migrants must apply for employment authorization using an online application.

Eligibility and processing time for this application varies depending on immigration status. For instance, parolees can expect to wait around two and a half months or longer to hear back about their work authorization.

Humanitarian parolees from Ukraine and Afghanistan automatically get 90-day work permits so they can earn money in the U.S. while their employment authorization applications are being processed. But parolees in the same situation who are from other countries, like Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, don’t qualify for this benefit.

For asylum-seekers, the process takes even longer: These migrants can’t even apply for working papers until they have been in the country for 150 days, and they can’t get approved until they have been in the country for 180 days.

Many international migrants already have high-level skills: According to the Migration Policy Institute, 48% of migrants who arrived in the U.S. between 2020 and 2022 held a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, compared to 36% of U.S.-born adults.

What resources exist for migrants seeking work in Kansas City?

Several groups help migrants access housing, jobs and other resources in the Kansas City area. They include:

Jewish Vocational Services: This nonprofit provides workforce development, translation services and social support for immigrants and refugees.

La Luz Immigration Clinic: Run by the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, this bilingual legal aid organization helps migrants seek asylum and apply for Temporary Protected Status, among other services.

Refugee & Immigrant Services & Empowerment (RISE): Operated by the Kansas City Public Library, this program runs free English language classes along with citizenship interview practice and financial literacy courses.

Della Lamb: This social services group has participated in refugee resettlement in Kansas City since 2015, including assisting around 25 asylum-seekers.

Asylum Clinic Kansas City: This legal aid group assists asylum-seekers and other immigrants, particularly unaccompanied minors, with their applications for Temporary Protected Status, naturalization and other government protections.

Advocates for Immigrant Rights & Reconciliation: This advocacy group provides Know Your Rights training for immigrants, regardless of their legal status. Volunteers also accompany clients to immigration hearings and legal appointments.

Do you have more questions about immigration or labor in the Kansas City area? Ask the Service Journalism team at