A proposed rule by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security, is aiming to destabilize thousands of asylum seekers hoping to lawfully work in the United States. The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on September 9, would eliminate the 30-day processing time for initial employment authorization documents (EAD, or work permits) given to asylum seekers – essentially extending the processing timeline indefinitely. Without a doubt, this change will come at a cost – and asylum seekers and their families, already vulnerable and frequently recovering from trauma, will be the ones who will pay.
A delay in the ability to work will cause grave consequences for both asylum seekers and the local, state, and national economy. USCIS even acknowledges this fact by stating in its proposed rule that the range of lost wages for asylum seekers could be from $255.88 million to $774.76 million annually. The ability to swiftly gain a work permit is a crucial first step for asylum seekers toward finding safety, stability, and the support necessary to begin rebuilding a full and productive life. Without first receiving their work permit, asylum seekers would be unable to obtain any form of identification, such as a driver’s license. This would effectively inhibit their ability to access social benefits and do things U.S. citizens take for granted such as open a bank account, get a library card, or even register their child for school.
A violation of human rights
The right to work and the right to a sufficient standard of living are basic tenets of international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that these rights apply to “everyone, without any discrimination . . . .” Denying asylum seekers the ability to quickly and meaningfully access the right to work undermines the very premise of a domestic system of refugee protection.
NIJC clients like Lucy*, the sole caretaker for her four grandchildren, would be stuck in hopeless situations without the swift processing of work permits. Before getting her work permit, Lucy and her grandchildren were living in cramped quarters with distant relatives, barely surviving. Their situation was so dire that at one point, the family of five had one egg to share for dinner. After Lucy received her work permit, things changed – she was able to find a steady full-time job and move out of the cramped living situation she and her grandchildren were in.
The potential for an indefinite wait in order to receive their work permit would also stop NIJC clients like Amadou* from realizing their full potential. Once Amadou graduated from high school and received his work permit, he found part-time work at a local post office. He is using the money he earns to put himself through community college. Eventually, Amadou hopes to follow his dreams of going to medical school.
A concern for all communities
Moreover, removing the regulatory 30-day timeline would destabilize communities, making all of us less safe. Without a work permit, and without an ID, the fear of interacting with local law enforcement and other government officials will become even more pronounced in immigrant communities. A 2018 study conducted by the Urban Institute found that within immigrant families, one in six adults expressed a fear of engaging in everyday activities such as driving, talking to police, or reporting a crime due to fear “in which they could be asked or bothered about [their] citizenship status.”
It’s clear – this proposed rule is merely another example of how theTrump administration uses false and anti-immigrant rhetoric to attack the asylum system and people seeking protection. From the very beginning of this administration, the White House and Executive Branch have unleashed deliberate and cruel attempts to dismantle the U.S. asylum system and the protections it grants. In this new rule, the administration fails to provide any evidence that these changes benefit U.S. communities or national security.
The United States’ legal and moral obligations to protect people seeking safety from persecution includes the obligation to ensure that those seeking and granted asylum are able to access the benefits and services that enable them to live a full life. Chipping away at asylum seekers’ ability to access employment authorization directly contravenes these obligations.
NIJC will continue to advocate for asylum seekers in the United States and those attempting to reach our border in search of safety and refuge. Read the comment NIJC submitted to the Federal Register in response to the proposed rule here.
*Name changed for client’s privacy and safety.
Joann Bautista is a policy associate at the National Immigrant Justice Center.