New US rules make it harder for asylum seekers to work

New rules say asylum seekers won’t be able to work for at least one year, without assistance from the US government.

Broad regulatory changes go into effect on Tuesday, restricting and delaying some asylum seekers from legally working in the US in what refugee advocates have said is an attempt to make the lives of persecuted people more difficult, in keeping with the anti-immigrant strategy of the administration of US President Donald Trump.

A series of broad rules issued by the US government that began taking effect on August 21 and finished Tuesday change procedures on obtaining “employment authorization documents” (EAD) necessary for legal employment in the US “are irrational”, Mariko Hirose, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), told Al Jazeera. 

The new rules, which allow greater discretionary power to decline work authorisation to asylum seekers while placing them in a tough financial situation, “serve no purpose other than to make things more difficult for people who leave their countries under circumstances of severe persecution”, Hirose continued. 

Hirose is one of IRAP’s lawyers working on a lawsuit (PDF) joined by four other refugee advocate groups challenging the rule. 

Financial concerns

“EADs are such an important part of making sure asylum seekers can provide for themselves and their families. There’s no federal assistance, and asylum seekers are fleeing persecution from their countries, so they aren’t coming here with money to support themselves”, Hirose said.

Previously, asylum seekers could receive work authorisation within 180 days of applying for asylum. Under the new rules, asylum seekers must wait 365 calendar days before they apply and there is no timeframe for a court to reach a decision on their EAD.

Danilo Zak, a policy and advocacy associate with the National Immigration Forum, told Al Jazeera “it’s a really long time if you’re an asylum seeker, trying hire a lawyer” or “provide for children”.

The new rules also mean that if an applicant causes a delay in the application process, including a change of address or applying to submit further evidence to support the claim, the employment authorisation will be denied.

The rules also make issuing EADs “discretionary rather than mandatory”, Zak continued. That means asylum seekers can do everything correctly, but still not receive work authorisation.

A draft of the rules was made public for a comment period in November, Zak said.

When respondents raised concerns about the financial restraints the rules would cause, including homelessness, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) replied, “Asylum seekers who are concerned about homelessness … should become familiar with the homelessness resources provided by the state where they intend to reside.”

Legal questions

The lawsuit challenging the new rules alleges they disregard established legal precedents.

For example, the rules make it possible for EADs not to be issued to those who will be successful in their asylum claims, such as those who entered the US between ports of entry where authorities can check documents, the lawyer, Hirose explained.

“It’s perfectly legal for asylum seekers to seek asylum, regardless of how they crossed into the US”, Hirose said.

The lawsuit also claims the head of DHS, Acting Director Chad Wolf, does not have the legal authority to issue the rules, as he has not been confirmed by Senate.

Wolf was made acting director in November 2019. DHS “violated the laws here by failing to have anyone who’s Senate-confirmed for that position for a historically long period”, Hirose claimed. 

Trump nominated Wolf for the position the same day the changes took effect.

There is a court hearing scheduled for next week. Hirose hopes “to get a decision from the court as soon as possible that will hopefully vacate these rules”, she concluded.

Zak, for his part, believes the US should recognise these people have legitimate reasons to fear returning home, as well as the “human dignity” of asylum seekers.

As it stands now, “these rules work to strip away the human dignity of those seeking asylum at the border,” Zak concluded. 

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