The Administration has proposed a rule change that will cause asylum seekers to wait longer than they currently do to get their first work permits. This would not only lengthen the time that asylum seekers have to rely on charity to survive, but will cause economic damage by delaying the entry of willing workers into the labor force.
Current regulations require asylum seekers to wait to apply for a work permit until 150 days after they file their asylum applications, but then mandate that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) decide the work permit applications within 30 days of receipt. Because USCIS consistently took longer than the required 30 days, a lawsuit was filed and in December 2018, a federal court ordered USCIS to comply with the regulations.
The Administration is proposing to remove that 30 day adjudication time frame from the regulation, expressly stating that processing times will then revert back to what they were prior to the Court’s order, when USCIS failed to meet that deadline 53% of the time.
The Administration admits it could add more staff in order to comply with the current regulation, but doesn’t estimate what that would cost, and dismisses that approach as failing to provide an immediate solution to the problem due to on-boarding and training time.
The Administration does, however, estimate the cost to asylum seekers whose ability to work will be delayed due to this rule change, finding that the estimated range of lost earnings to asylum seekers annually will range from $255 million to $774 million.
The proposed rule’s preamble notes that in turn, this will result in an estimated $39 million to $118 million in lost federal payroll taxes annually. The Administration doesn’t attempt to project the additional tax losses at the state and local levels.
The Administration fails to calculate, but acknowledges, that this rule change will also cost employers in lost productivity and profits by depriving them of a labor pool, also noting that with the nation’s current historically low unemployment rates, providing work permits meets an economic need.
The Administration states that increased volume and some cases requiring additional information mean that USCIS needs more than 30 days to process work permit applications. Yet, that problem could be resolved by proposing that asylum seekers submit their asylum and work permit applications simultaneously. Federal statutes state that an asylum seeker can’t get a work permit sooner than 180 days after applying for asylum, but are silent on when the work permit application can be submitted. It is only by regulation that asylum seekers can’t file their work permit applications until their asylum cases have been pending for 150 days. The administration could remove that 150 day wait from the regulation, giving USCIS 180 days to process the work permit application, which according to data in the proposed rule would be enough time to adjudicate over 96% of the work permit applications received.
Maine’s unemployment rate is at record lows, estimated at 2.9% in September 2019. Asylum seekers are typically of working age, and play a critical role in shoring up Maine’s shrinking labor supply. They already must wait six months to get their first work permit, which is an assault on their dignity, and a huge waste of human capital. Neither they, nor the employers eager to hire them, should have to wait even longer.