California AG Slams Trump Plan Restricting Work Permits for Asylum-Seekers

A woman and child wait to hear their position in a list of people waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum in the U.S. in November 2018. (David Maung/Getty Images)

California’s attorney general is calling for the Trump administration to withdraw a proposal that would make it more difficult for asylum-seekers to legally work in the U.S. while their claims are decided.

Under the proposed federal rule, asylum applicants would have to wait a year before requesting a work permit, rather than the current waiting period of five months. The proposal would also prevent most people who didn’t come to the U.S. through an official port of entry from obtaining employment authorization while they pursue an asylum claim.

Work permits would also be denied to asylum-seekers who have been convicted in the U.S. of any felonies or certain types of other public safety offenses, such as driving under the influence and domestic violence.

The move would harm at least 15,000 asylum-seekers in California each year and drive many of them to look for work in the underground economy, according to Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“Today, we’re calling on the federal government to rescind this latest proposed attack on the asylum process,” Becerra said in a statement Monday announcing that he and 23 other state attorneys general had filed a letter of opposition. “The Trump administration ... continues to introduce arbitrary hoops and hurdles that prevent people fleeing violence and persecution from being able to provide for themselves or their families.”

Asylum applicants waited an average of nearly three years for immigration courts to decide their cases, according to a recent report by researchers at Syracuse University.

Department of Homeland Security officials say the plan aims to deter migrants from entering the country unlawfully. In a November statement announcing the proposal, officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the rule would discourage people from filing “frivolous, fraudulent or otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications in order to obtain employment authorization.”

“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 USCIS acting Director Ken Cuccinelli in the statement.

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The proposed rule is the latest in a series of policies introduced by the Trump administration to restrict eligibility for asylum and make it more difficult for asylum-seekers to obtain refuge, such as by forcing them to remain in Mexico — often in dangerous conditions and without access to legal counsel — while their applications are decided by U.S. immigration courts.

A separate proposal by USCIS would take the unprecedented step of charging some people $50 to request asylum, and $490 to apply for a first-time work permit. Only three other countries charge asylum-seekers a fee to consider their applications: Iran, Fiji and Australia.

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The cumulative impact of these initiatives is to prevent people of color from gaining legal protections in the U.S. — particularly Central Americans and Mexicans, who constitute most of the people apprehended at the southern border, said Michael Smith, Refugee Rights Program Director at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley.

He said the latest proposal restricting work permits would be “very punitive” to clients at his organization, which represents about 300 asylum cases each year.

“The impact would be they’ll have a harder time surviving, buying groceries, paying rent,” Smith said. “It’ll make life more difficult for them.”

The public comment period on the proposal ended Jan. 13. Government officials must now take those comments into consideration before issuing a final rule.

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