One of the worst mistakes former President Donald Trump made in office, substantively but also politically, was pretending that a national crisis – the pandemic – was not a crisis at all, only a minor annoyance that would quickly resolve itself on its own. Until last week, President Biden was at risk of making a similar type of error, by largely ignoring the fiscal and humanitarian crisis presented by the large influx of asylum seekers into the U.S. Now, to his credit, he appears to be seizing the leadership opportunity the crisis presents, which will benefit cities, the U.S. economy and – as long as he keeps it up – his standing with voters.

Marilyn Miranda, 12, of Washington, center, raises her hand during a protest for an extension of the Temporary Protected Status program, Sept. 23, 2022, in Washington. “My mom is a TPS holder,” says Miranda, “so I’m fighting for her and the other TPS holders, and to have a new TPS signed for those who don’t have it.” Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press, File

Last week, Biden announced that he would grant temporary protected status to the nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who have entered the U.S. over the past 18 months, many of them admitted by federal authorities at the border, as they flee a country that has been plagued by economic and political chaos. They have come here in search of work and a better life, as immigrants have always done, often showing enormous courage and determination in making the long and perilous journey.

Once here, however, they have been prohibited from working until they receive the required legal papers, a bureaucratic process that often takes more than a year. To bar people who have been admitted into the country from working is one of the most un-American things I could ever imagine, especially at a time when so many businesses are struggling to hire workers. It is, as Biden might say, total malarkey.

With no way to support themselves and their families, many are forced to rely on public shelters. New York City’s shelter system now houses 60,000 asylum seekers, costing city taxpayers billions of dollars and fueling the electoral prospects of politicians who peddle xenophobia. For some candidates on the right, including the former president, the chance to stir up outrage against downtrodden asylum seekers – and to blast Democrats for blocking them from working while spending taxpayer dollars to put them up in hotels – is a dream scenario.

Earlier this month, I urged Biden to use his executive authority to grant work authorizations to as many asylum seekers as possible. Other leaders, including New York Mayor Eric Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, made similar requests. It’s clear he listened.

By granting temporary protected status to Venezuelans, which comes with automatic work authorizations, Biden is freeing them to work, contribute to local economies and earn enough money to house and care for themselves and their families. It is a critical first step in the right direction, and I applaud him for taking it. But it cannot be a “one and done” action.

The crisis remains urgent, and larger steps must be taken to address it. In New York, Adams and Hochul are doing their part, by pushing in court to realign the city’s right-to-shelter policy with its original intent: housing the homeless – an effort members of both parties should support. But much more needs to happen in Washington, too.

Congress and the White House should work to ensure that all asylum seekers who have been admitted into the country are granted work authorizations. Cities also need Washington to provide more financial support for the safety-net programs that some asylum seekers must rely on as they get on their feet. And cities need the federal government to revamp the asylum process to expedite cases.

It has long been clear that additional judges, lawyers, asylum officers and facilities are necessary. Resolving cases quickly at the border – as well as while people are still in their home countries, as the Biden administration is trying to do – is a difficult operational management challenge, but hardly an insurmountable one.

All crises are tests of leadership that can make or break executives. Trump failed his greatest test in spectacular fashion with tragic consequences. Biden is now showing that he understands the high stakes, and by taking more steps forward, he can strengthen the economy, support cities and strike a blow against xenophobia and candidates who promote it.

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