Proposed Rule Will Further Delay Asylum Seekers’ Work Permits

The Administration has published a proposed rule to delay issuance of asylum seekers’ initial work permits.

By law, asylum seekers can’t apply for their first work permits sooner than 150 days after filing for asylum, but current longstanding regulations then require USCIS to make a decision on those applications within 30 days.  Because USCIS routinely failed to act that quickly, in 2018, a federal court ordered them to begin doing so.  The proposed rule would effectively nullify that court order and let USCIS to revert to longer processing times for issuing asylum seekers’ initial work permits.

The proposed rule defies economic reality.  In August 2019, the  national unemployment rate held steady at 3.7%.   In Maine, the unemployment rate in July 2019 was 3%, with 12 counties having rates below 3% (including Sagadahoc and Cumberland Counties at 1.7% and 1.9% respectively).  All of Maine’s counties had unemployment rates under 4%, compared to a year ago when five Maine counties had rates over 4%.  Nationally and in Maine, employers are clamoring for workers, and asylum seekers can help fill that need.

The proposed rule indicates that the Administration is well aware of this.   The proposed rule’s preamble states:

A portion of the impacts of this rule would also be borne by companies that would have hired the asylum applicants had they been in the labor market earlier but were unable to find available workers. These companies would incur a cost, as they would be losing the productivity and potential profits the asylum applicant would have provided had the asylum applicant been in the labor force earlier.

Moreover, the proposed rule acknowledges the economic cost to the asylum seekers themselves, in lost income, which in turn is income not spent in the the economy.    The  administration anticipates that work permit processing times will revert to the delays that preceded the 2018 court order, and estimates that

(t)he lost compensation to asylum applicants could range from $255.88 million to $774.76 million annually depending on the wages the asylum applicant would have earned.

The proposed rule recognizes that “USCIS could hire more officers” in order to more quickly process these work permit applications, but the Administration is choosing not to do so.  In addition, the preamble notes that the White House is contemplating eliminating in the future the ability for asylum seekers to get a work permit at all while their cases are pending, if they didn’t enter the U.S. through a border inspection post (such as the vast majority of asylum seekers who arrive via the southern border, including the asylum seekers who arrived in Portland this summer).

Asylum seekers are allowed under federal and international law to seek safety in the U.S. regardless of how they enter the country.  Making it more difficult for them to get work authorization while their cases are in process not only forces them to rely on charity and robs them of dignity, but deprives our economy of their ability to contribute as workers and consumers.   We should be helping asylum seekers get their work permits more quickly, rather than less, as proposed legislation, introduced by Maine’s Rep. Chellie Pingree, would do.

Public comment on this proposed rule will be accepted through November 8, 2019.  Please contact MeBIC if your business would like assistance submitting a comment in opposition to this change.