Report: U.S. Bars Vulnerable Asylum Seekers From Working And Receiving Assistance

CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee

Asylum seekers in the United States are barred from working and receiving government assistance for months and sometimes years, leaving an already vulnerable population with little access to healthcare, housing, and food.

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Tuesday, the U.S. is the only developed country to deny both work authorization and benefits to asylum seekers. By law, immigrants who seek asylum must wait 150 days after applying before they can request employment authorization. In practice the 180 days can drag on for many more months and even years, thanks to a provision in immigration law that allows officials to “stop the clock” and freeze the asylum process whenever there is a “delay request[ed] or caused by the [asylum] applicant.”

The report, “At Least Let Them Work: The Denial of Work Authorization and Assistance for Asylum Seekers in the United States,” asserts that the clock can be stopped arbitrarily. HRW notes the case of a Guatemalan mother who was unable to procure a lawyer until just days before her hearing [many applicants are not fortunate enough to ever have a lawyer]. Her attorney requested an adjournment for a few weeks in order to properly complete her and her daughter’s application, “the judge then proceeded to schedule their next hearing nine months in the future, making it impossible for this mother and daughter to accrue necessary days on their clock.” In one simple motion, five months of forced unemployment became over a year of hardship. According to the report, 262,025 cases in 2011 had “stopped clocks” at some point in the proceedings, or 91.9 percent of all cases that year.

Fleeing violence and persecution, asylum seekers often need medical care they cannot afford without paying jobs. Finding housing, transportation and food can seem equally impossible. In an interview conducted for the report by Seton Hall University, an Egyptian named Khaled who fled death threats from Islamists with his family spent half a decade on-and-off American streets, begging to support his family until they were finally granted refugee status. During one such homeless period, Khaled described having to steal apples from a tree for his family. “It’s not something you should go through,” he said. “But reality is different.” Many others are forced to accept work exploitation, working without wage protections or in desperation turning towards more illicit paths such as prostitution.

A class-action settlement in April will demand more transparency from judges moving forward on what actions stop the clock. This could make it easier for refugees and their lawyers to avoid extreme delays.

But greater transparency and efficiency will not help asylum seekers find shelter and food while they can’t legally work for months. North of the border in Canada, “asylum seekers are provided with social security, healthcare, and legal representation.” The same is true of applicants in the United Kingdom who demonstrate their need, and the European Union requires member-states to provide a healthy standard of living even for those asylum seekers not yet permitted to work.

The U.S. asylum process faces mounting scrutiny. On Monday, double amputee and asylee from Mexico Carlos Gutierrez finished a nearly 800-mile bike ride from El Paso to Central Texas. Gutierrez announced the ride in October, hoping to shed light on the thousands of Mexicans denied refugee status after they’ve fled Mexico’s violent drug wars. Not all in Congress are sympathetic. In April, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) revealed his misunderstanding of asylum realities, claiming border agents had told him “immigrants often claim political asylum and are allowed to stay in the country legally until they get a court date and that can take a long time. They are just gaming our system, knowing that they can get here and milk the system for years with no consequences.”

To ensure asylum seekers are able to reach a decent standard of living as they await decisions on their applications, HRW called on Congress to amend the nation’s immigration laws, allowing asylum applications and employment authorization forms to be filed at the same time and eliminating the controversial “clock.” The report also urges Congress to allow asylum seekers access to federal benefits while their application is under review.

Christopher Butterfield is an intern for ThinkProgress.