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What Will Happen If Trump Cancels Work Permits for Asylum Seekers?

A social worker explains how the president's latest memo could affect asylum seekers as they await the outcome of their court proceedings.
People wait at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge to turn themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel for asylum consideration on January 13th, 2019, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

People wait at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge to turn themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel for asylum consideration on January 13th, 2019, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

President Donald Trump's latest crackdown on asylum seekers, which came in the form of orders sent to the Department of Homeland Security on Monday, would deny many asylum seekers work permits, and could cancel many people's existing permits.

In the current backlogged system, many people who will go on to have successful asylum claims must wait for years at a time before their case is settled. Some advocates worry that, without work permits, asylum seekers will have difficulty getting by in the United States.

"Obviously people need to survive," says Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher with the advocacy organization Human Rights First. "So presumably asylum seekers who don't have support from family members or a charitable organization might have to work under the table, and that puts them at much greater risk for exploitation in those industries that are willing to hire people who don't have work permission."

The memo Trump sent to the acting secretary of homeland security instructs the country's immigration authorities to deny work permits to asylum seekers who crossed illegally between ports of entry on the southern border and were detained by Border Patrol. It also instructs them to deny work permits to people who have been given a final order of removal to be deported, even if they continue to appeal their case. Kizuka says that this could affect a large number of current and future asylum seekers, and social workers in his organization are worried that the language in the memo could mean that the existing work permits of current asylum seekers could be canceled.

One of those social workers is Jessica Gorelick, who works with asylum seekers and refugees. Gorelick says she's seen firsthand the impact a work permit can have on a person's life. To give an example, she tells the story of a refugee who survived torture in the Central African Republic. Under current regulations, all asylum seekers must wait six months before they can gain work authorization, and Gorelick says that, in that period, the man—who HRF refers to with the pseudonym Michele—slept in subway stations and on the street. Sometimes he would see if emergency rooms had spare beds where he could get some rest.

Gorelick says that everything changed once Michele got work authorization. "He looked like a different person," she says. "He looked like he'd grown six inches." Michele was an educated person, and was able to get a job and rent himself an apartment. He went on to gain asylum, and continues to work.

Trump's memo also calls for all existing asylum cases to be resolved in 180 days, but many existing cases have gone on to last as long as five years. "I would expect this provision will affect many asylum seekers who have been waiting, through not fault of their own, for many years for their case to be adjudicated because of the backlogs and delays in immigration court," Kizuka says. He says he is skeptical that the administration could meaningfully speed up the process without rapidly hiring more judges. Instead, he worries that the new time pressure could mean that corners get cut rather than giving asylum seekers fair due process.

Like many other observers, Kizuka sees Trump's memo as the administration's latest attempt to deter people from seeking asylum by making the lives of asylum seekers harder.

"They think that somehow this will dissuade people fleeing from violence in Central America or elsewhere from coming and seeking protection," Kizuka says.