Bill Summary: Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act

The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, or S.3665, is a bipartisan bill that would enable asylum seekers easier access to work authorization while their claims are pending in immigration court. The bill was introduced on February 16 by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), and cosponsored by Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Angus King (I-Maine).

Background

The U.S. asylum process allows individuals — specifically those with a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries — to seek legal protection at the U.S. border or in the interior. Those who obtain asylum are offered protections in the U.S., access to work authorization and other federal benefits, and a path to lawful permanent residence (LPR) status and eventually citizenship.

However, the asylum system is currently heavily backlogged. It takes an average of 5 to 6 years for a case to be heard in immigration court. During this period, asylum seekers are protected from deportation but otherwise lack status or access to most federal benefits. According to Title 8 of the United States Code, which governs immigration law and enshrines the right to seek asylum, asylum seekers may receive authorization to work as soon as 180 days following the filing of an asylum application.

Ostensibly, this lengthy waiting period is in place due to concerns that the rapid provision of work authorization will encourage misuse of the asylum system by those without credible claims. However, there are significant protections already in place to guard against potential asylum fraud, including the use of background checks, forensic examination of identity documents, and established government departments and personnel whose role it is to investigate and identify fraudulent or “frivolous” applications.

The initial 180-day bar to work authorization places a significant burden on asylum seekers, local communities, and the economy as a whole. As asylum seekers begin their legal pursuit of protective status, they are not provided the opportunity to support themselves and are unable to contribute to the economy. As workforce shortages grow across the country, asylum seekers’ lengthy ineligibility for work authorization creates a burden for local communities, nonprofits, homeless shelters, and volunteer networks.

The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act would:

  • Reduce the statutory waiting period before asylum seekers can apply for work authorization from 180 days to 30 days.
  • Clarify that only asylum seekers who are not detained, who have not had their applications deemed frivolous, and who have had their identities checked against relevant government records may be eligible to receive work authorization.
  • Clarify that work authorization provided under the bill would be for a period of one year and would be renewable until the asylum claim is complete.

The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Ben Ginsburg Hix, policy intern, for his extensive contributions to this resource.

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