A federal court ruled that two rules issued by the Trump administration restricting — and in some cases eliminating — access to work authorization for asylum seekers were illegally issued and are therefore invalid.
More than a year ago, a group of nearly 20 asylum seekers along with three organizations sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) challenging these rules. The individual asylum seekers include transgender women, parents with small children, and children and adults who fled political persecution, gender-based violence, or gang and drug-cartel violence. The rules prevented or delayed their access to a work permit. The organizational plaintiffs — AsylumWorks, the Tahirih Justice Center, and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto — argued that the rules derailed their missions to provide employment assistance and legal and social services to asylum seekers.
The National Immigrant Justice Center, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, Kids in Need of Defense, and Tahirih Justice Center provided counsel in the case.
Plaintiffs challenged the substantive provisions that drastically curtailed access to work authorization, and they argued that the rules were invalid because purported Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf issued them even though he was not lawfully installed as DHS Secretary. The rules took effect in August 2020 and were partially enjoined by a different court in September 2020, but that decision left many of the rules’ harmful provisions in place. Despite these ongoing harms and despite a change in administration, the government dragged its feet arguing that the rules should remain in place “for the time being” to allow “developing administrative actions” to resolve the case.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia refused to entertain these delay requests, and rejected the government’s “interpretative acrobatics” to justify Mr. Wolf’s purported authority to engage in rulemaking. Instead, the court followed numerous other courts around the country and concluded that “Wolf’s ascension to the office of Acting Secretary was unlawful.” The court also rejected the Biden administration’s attempt to ratify one of the rules in question, reasoning that the ratification “did not cure the defects ... caused by Wolf’s unlawful tenure as Acting Secretary.”
Reflections from Counsel and Organizational Plaintiffs:
“The ability to earn an income is critical to asylum seekers’ ability to survive in the United States as they pursue protection from persecution,” said Keren Zwick, director of litigation at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The court’s decision recognizes that the government cannot neglect to fill a cabinet position with a Senate-approved candidate for 665 days and then rely on unvetted, temporary officials to strip asylum seekers of access to a livelihood in the United States.”
“The court got it right,” said Annie Daher, senior staff attorney at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. “People seeking asylum should be treated with dignity and fairness as they pursue their legal claims. Access to work permits allows asylum seekers to provide for their families, obtain vital legal representation, and ultimately find safety and security in the United States. Today’s ruling will make a life-saving difference for our plaintiffs and for all people who turn to this country for refuge.”
“Children seeking asylum often need a USCIS-issued ‘employment authorization’ document as their only form of photo ID, to access education and other services critical to their stability and well-being during the asylum process,” said Scott Shuchart, senior director, legal strategy, at Kids in Need of Defense. “The court correctly restored access to these important documents for, potentially, thousands of unaccompanied children who will now have the opportunity to build a more secure life in the United States as they pursue lifesaving protection.”
"The right to work is an essential component of humanitarian protection," said Joan Hodges-Wu, executive director and founder of AsylumWorks. "Work is not only imperative to economic survival; it also represents a means for asylum seekers to maintain personal dignity and self-respect during the long and protracted legal process. The court took a critical step toward upholding the rights of asylum seekers by vacating illegally-issued rules created to deter individuals and families seeking safety from harm. We applaud the court's decision and look forward to continuing our work to help asylum seekers prepare for and retain safe, legal, and purposeful employment."
“This decision restores the critical ability of countless survivors of gender-based violence to work, and thus be independent and provide for their families, while their asylum applications are pending—a process that often takes many years,” said Richard Caldarone, senior litigation counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center. “It also makes clear that the government remains obligated to promptly decide survivors’ requests for work authorization rather than leaving them in bureaucratic limbo for months or years. The decision takes arbitrary and punitive restrictions on work permanently off the books. We applaud the court’s decision and look forward to its immediate implementation.”
“We are thrilled that our motion for summary judgment was granted. This decision will have an enormous impact on our clients and so many other asylum seekers who come to this country seeking safety and justice,” said Cristina Dos Santos, the Immigration Program director at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. “The Trump-era rules were punitive and cruel to asylum seekers, preventing them from receiving the right to work, potentially for years, as they waited to have their cases heard in our backlogged immigration court system. We have seen first hand how these policies forced asylum-seekers and their families into poverty and destitution. A resolution was urgently needed. We applaud the court’s decision.”