The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Let Asylum-Seeking Migrants Work

Taking this step would benefit both the migrants themselves and the American economy. It would also eliminate burdens on local governments.


The Chicago Tribune has an article describing how asylum-seeking migrants in the city are unable to support themselves, even as many employers in the city are desperate for workers. The article describes the sad situation of Venezuelans who fled socialism only to find themselves legally barred from working in the Land of the Free. There is a similar situation in New York City and elsewhere. The City struggles to accommodate asylum seekers who cannot support themselves, even as it also suffers from a major labor shortage.

Migrants seeking asylum can legally enter the US and then wait to have their claims adjudicated, which can take many months or even years.  Meanwhile federal law prevents them from working for at least six months, and often even longer:

[Asylum] allows people to stay in the United States instead of being deported to a country where they fear persecution or harm. But those people must apply for asylum. If the government grants them that status, they get protection and the legal right to stay in the United States.

One challenge they face, however, is that the federal government requires applicants to wait 180 days or roughly six months before they are legally allowed to work, and they must apply for that permission to work, which is called "work authorization." Furthermore, that 180-day clock doesn't start until the government receives the first application.

The United States Custom and Immigration Services often takes much longer than 180 days to approve these applications. The government website noted that 80 percent of applications are processed in 12 months.

In addition, the USCIS is struggling to process the initial asylum applications. US Customs and Immigration Services is supposed to process the asylum application within 30 days, but it often takes much longer.

During this lengthy period when they are ineligible to work legally, asylum seekers have little choice but to rely on some combination of public assistance, charity, and precarious illegal employment. Ironically, this state of affairs allows immigration restrictionists to depict these migrants as a burden and crow over how liberal jurisdictions like NYC have trouble accommodating them. But the migrants are only a burden because they are legally barred from working to support themselves. You too would likely be a burden to society if the federal government forbade employers from hiring you!

There is an obvious solution to this problem: Let asylum seekers work legally immediately upon entering the United States. Doing so would be good for the migrants, enabling them to support themselves and their families. It would also benefit the US economy, particularly areas with major labor shortages. And it would alleviate burdens on local governments. Indeed, the latter would actually benefit from the extra tax revenue and economic growth generated by additional workers.

Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins and independents Angus King and Kyrsten Sinema have drafted the Asylum Work Authorization Act, a bill that would cut the work authorization time to 30 days. Sadly, I am not optimistic it will pass.

In May, the Biden Administration introduced a harsh new policy that makes it harder to for asylum-seekers to enter the US to begin with. But the new policy has been challenged in court, and may well be struck down, as was a similar Trump-era rule. Even if it remains in force, substantial numbers of asylum seekers will still enter the US by various pathways permitted under the policy, and work eligibility will continue to be a problem.

The work-authorization issue is just the tip of a much larger iceberg of flaws in the US asylum system. Among other things, we should expand the ridiculously and unjustly narrow criteria for eligibility, which exclude many people fleeing horrific violence and oppression. We should also take more steps to make legal migration easier. The Biden Administration has made some important progress on the latter front, but much more needs to be done.

In the meantime, however, expanding work eligibility for asylum seekers should be a relative no-brainer.  It should not be hard to see that it's better if these people who entered the US legally can also support themselves legally, while they are here.