The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have reached an agreement to allow asylum seekers whose cases have been pending for more than six months to apply for employment authorization — a huge relief to the thousands of people who have come to the United States to escape persecution who struggle to make ends meet as their applications are being reviewed.
At the heart of the class action lawsuit is the so-called “asylum clock” — the six month waiting period between the time an asylum seeker files for an asylum application and when that person can apply for legal work authorization. In the past, the asylum clock began only after the applicant was granted a hearing with an immigration judge and started without notice to the asylum seeker. But the settlement would give non-detained applicants at least 45 days to prepare for an expedited hearing.
In the event of an asylum denial, applicants are now able to restart their asylum clock after a successful petition by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and can include the days between the denial and the petition on the asylum clock. Another important change is the ability to show proof in 45 days, rather than the current 15 days, for having missed an asylum interview, which ends employment eligibility and the asylum clock.
The agreement settles a nationwide class action lawsuit filed jointly by the American Immigration Council’s Legal Action Center (LAC), the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and a Seattle law firm. The immigration groups found that the old system, in which asylum clock stopped when applicants caused a delay in the application proceedings, places a huge financial burden on applicants and their families. As attorney Chris Strawn points out, “During that time they’re not legally authorized to work…so that means they need to rely on friends, family, or perhaps some limited social services in order to meet their basic needs – or work unlawfully. So it really puts people in a catch-22.”
Although this change would take place over the course of two years, given the Immigration Court’s history of making slow decisions on asylum applications, the class action lawsuit will actually help to clarify and expedite the entire application process.
As a result of the settlement, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has mandated that hearings must be given for immigrants whose detention has surpassed six months. For many immigrants, including a plaintiff who has spent ten years waiting for an asylum decision, legal employment is not only an American dream, but a necessity to survive.