Homeland Security proposes tougher work permit rules for asylum seekers

New policy would double time to acquire employment authorization

THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY proposed a new policy on Wednesday that denies work permits to asylum seekers who cross the border illegally and increases from six months to a year the amount of time needed to obtain a permit for those in the US legally.

Both initiatives would make it much harder to win asylum, since it would be extremely difficult for someone to survive without a job during the two to three years it typically takes for asylum status to be granted. The new policy also assesses new fees for applying for work permits and conducting background checks, both of which had been free in accord with international law.

Currently, asylum law allows most asylum seekers to apply for work permits regardless of how they entered the country. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, reviews and approves the work permit applications. Under the proposed policy, officers would be allowed to grant case-by-case exceptions if the immigrant has “good cause” to enter the US illegally.

Asylum seekers must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion or are fleeing their home country because of war or violence.

The Department of Homeland Security said it introduced the new policy to reduce “incentives for aliens to file frivolous, fraudulent, or otherwise nonmeritorious asylum applications” in order to obtain employment authorization, and to discourage illegal entry into the US, according to a proposal notice the agency published.

“Illegal aliens are gaming our asylum system for economic opportunity, which undermines the integrity of our immigration system and delays relief for legitimate asylum seekers in need of humanitarian protection,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, in a statement.

The proposed rule is being published in the Federal Register on Thursday, and will be subject to a two-month public comment period before it takes effect in January 2020. Immigration attorneys say the rule is likely to be challenged in court.

“Make no bones about it, denying asylum seekers the ability to work during the two to three years the asylum process can take—thus forcing them to starve, rely on charity, or work under the table—is arbitrary and capricious,” said local immigration attorney Eneida M. Román.

Román, like most attorneys for immigrants, said the Trump administration has tried to crack down on immigrants who have tapped government programs such as Medicaid. Yet now, with this latest ruling on asylum, the administration is making it harder for asylum seekers to find work, Roman said.

Under current regulations, asylum applicants can’t file for a work permit until their cases have been pending for 150 days. After their application is submitted, they receive the permit about 30 days after. The work permit, which comes in the form of a plastic card, is usable for two years before it must be renewed.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“When we wonder if the administration can go any lower, they prove that there is no bottom to the swamp by proposing a fee for asylum applications,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, the New England chapter head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “These are people who flee their homes with little but the clothes on their back, often enduring precarious conditions because of the dangerous conditions they face back home.”

An estimated 16,000 refugees, or asylum seekers, settled in Massachusetts between 2007 and 2017.