Biden Administration Takes Welcome Action to Address Delays in Issuing Work Permit Renewals That Have Had Devasting Consequences for Asylum Seekers

In the United States, people who have fled persecution in their home countries and requested asylum must support themselves while they wait for a decision in their case. The U.S. government does not provide asylum seekers with housing, food, or other support, even though asylum seekers only become eligible to request permission to work six months after applying for asylum.

By Cora Wright, Legal Fellow, Refugee Protection and Refugee Representation

In the United States, people who have fled persecution in their home countries and requested asylum must support themselves while they wait for a decision in their case. The U.S. government does not provide asylum seekers with housing, food, or other support, even though asylum seekers only become eligible to request permission to work six months after applying for asylum. Even then, the temporary Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) asylum applicants receive often expire before their cases are decided, given large asylum case backlogs, leaving asylum applicants forced to renew their temporary EADs many times.

The EAD renewal process, however, has become seriously delayed. Although making a decision on a renewal application takes about twelve minutes, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and over 90 percent of renewal applications are approved, asylum seekers currently face waits of up to fourteen-and-a-half months for a decision by USCIS on their EAD renewal requests.

These extreme waits mean that asylum seekers’ EADs expire before USCIS even reviews the application. This is the case even when asylum seekers apply for renewal six months before the expiration of the EAD (the earliest possible) and even with the automatic extension USCIS currently provides for pending renewal applications.

For asylum seekers, the impacts of these delays are devastating, causing major hardships. Many report losing their jobs, educational opportunities, health insurance coverage, and ability to house, feed, and support themselves and their families. At least 2,000 asylum seeker members of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) reported in February 2022 that they had lost their jobs or were about to lose their jobs because of EAD renewal delays.

For months, asylum-seeker organizations, including ASAP, refugee-rights groups, and legal services providers have pressed the Biden administration to address these delays. Members of Congress also repeatedly expressed their concerns. U.S. Representatives Charlie Crist and Val Demings, along with eight other members of Congress, released a joint statement in November 2021 calling on USCIS to set a timeline to clear the EAD backlog and requested that the automatic EAD extension period be increased to 360 days. Representative Crist noted that “jobs provide essential stability for asylum seekers waiting for a decision in their case. For the families in Florida that fled persecution and violence, the thought that they would lose their jobs despite meeting their end of the bargain is heartbreaking.”

On May 3, 2022, the Biden administration took action. Recognizing the “grave situation” thousands of asylum seekers (as well as applicants for other EADS) have endured as a result of serious USCIS processing delays, the administration issued a temporary rule that, effective today, extends the automatic EAD extension period to 540 days.

This welcome rule will prevent more asylum seekers from losing their EADs—which are for most asylum seekers their only means to house, feed and support themselves and their families, as their cases are decided. Without the just-announced longer automatic extension period, many asylum seekers had previously lost their jobs because of the unconscionable USCIS delays in renewing EADs, including:

  • Heghine Muradyan, an Armenian asylum seeker, told Vox that she was forced to go on unpaid leave during the second year of her medical residency in a hospital emergency room because USCIS had not decided her renewal application by the time her work permit expired. As a result, the already short-staffed hospital struggled to find a replacement, and Heghine had no means to support her son and elderly parents.
  • Dayana Vera de Aponte, a Venezuelan asylum seeker living in Miami, lost her job as a behavioral health therapist for children with special needs when her EAD expired in November 2021 after waiting eight months for USCIS to decide the renewal application. Along with immediate economic consequences – de Aponte, the primary breadwinner, was no longer able to afford Christmas presents for her children – USCIS’s delay also threatened her ability to maintain her professional license. She told Bloomberg Law of her frustration: “I don’t have control over this situation… My documents were sent in on time. Everything was done on time.”
  • Tony N., an asylum seeker from East Africa, lost his driver’s license, delivery job, and chance at starting his own trucking business because USCIS failed to decide his EAD renewal before it expired. Tony’s shipping job had included delivering personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
  • A Syrian asylum seeker and his pregnant wife lost their income when USCIS failed to renew the man’s EAD before it expired. His bank, which told him that his account was also linked to the validity of his EAD documents, threatened to shut his account. USCIS ultimately approved the man’s EAD renewal application after a fourteen-month delay.
  • A domestic violence survivor seeking asylum from Guatemala lost her job of two-and-a-half years when her EAD expired in September 2021, as USCIS had failed to timely adjudicate the renewal request. Without this income, the woman could not pay her rent and experienced severe mental and physical pain with the stress of trying to care for her two young daughters. One of the girls was so anxious about her mother’s job loss that she began pulling out her hair.
  • Because USCIS took 17 months to approve the EAD renewal for a Ugandan asylum seeker, he had to leave his job as a certified nursing assistant and lost his driver’s license, which for most asylum seekers is tied to a valid EAD. As a result, he was unable to support his wife and three children, who remain stranded in Uganda.
  • Yulaima Mirrae and her husband Alberto Jose Ramos Rodriguez, asylum seekers from Venezuela, told an Orlando news station in January 2022 that they were facing dwindling savings after the automatic six-month extension of their EADs expired. At that point, their renewal applications had been pending with USCIS for more than one year and they were struggling to pay their mortgage, electricity, and water bill.

Other asylum seekers, facing the expiration of their EADs despite having applied to renew them well in advance, were left in the extremely stressful position of knowing they were about to lose their jobs:

  • A human rights activist and journalist seeking asylum from Kosovo, who had been waiting over one year for USCIS to decide her EAD renewal, worries she will be fired from the job that supports her and her two children. She told Human Rights First, “I don’t know if I’ll have this job anymore or what might happen . . . You cannot move on. You cannot make basic decisions. . . I don’t know what might happen if I do not get a work authorization [renewal]. You don’t know how long it will take, if you know, if they tell you one year, you kind of manage, but you don’t know.”

These work authorization delays and job losses had come at a time of a major labor market shortage in the United States. As of February 2022, there were 11.3 million job openings, and the National Association of Business Economics reported that 47 percent of businesses that responded to its Business Conditions Survey indicating a shortage of skilled workers. Asylum seekers work in a variety of industries across the country, including vital roles as healthcare workers, ride-share drivers, engineers, teachers, advocates for human rights, and truck drivers.

Employers of asylum seekers should note that new receipts will not be issued for these automatic extensions, and that asylum seekers’ work authorization documents will now simply be valid for 540 days after the original renewal receipt.

USCIS’s commitment to addressing what it had termed an “outstanding processing issue” through longer automatic extensions is a welcome and commendable action that will help thousands of asylum seekers. USCIS should also take steps to not only tackle the backlog of work authorization applications, but that address the underlying backlog of affirmative asylum applications that have left people seeking refuge in the United States waiting in limbo for years.

Letter

Author:

  • Cora Wright

Published on May 4, 2022

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