On Thursday, the Trump administration released a proposed set of changes to the existing rules that dictate when asylum seekers may apply for a work permit. Currently, they must wait six months from the date of filing an application to apply.
Under the new rules, those seeking safety in the United States would have to wait a year after applying for asylum to be eligible for a work permit. Those who crossed the border illegally would be barred altogether, although this is not the typical way that immigrants seek asylum.
When they first arrive, asylum seekers must depend on family, friends and charities for support, housing and food because it's illegal for them to work. Extending that time period during which they cannot obtain a work permit would make the situation much harder, said Pilar Ferguson, the asylum program director for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.
“They really have to depend on other people,” Ferguson said. “It would put a much bigger strain on them.”
Even now, Ferguson said it's never just six months that asylum-seeking immigrants have to wait. It usually takes a few months to get to a lawyer and begin the process. Lawyers often need another few months to gather paperwork and evidence and to translate any documents not written in English before they can file an actual asylum claim. All told, even with the existing regulations, asylum seekers are commonly in the country and unable to earn money legally for a year to a year and a half, Ferguson said.
Currently, Ferguson's organization has 147 open asylum cases. Their clients come to the country to escape religious and sexual persecution, violence, domestic abuse and the threat of genital mutilation.
The Dallas immigration court approved 25.2% of the 5,887 cases it heard so far this year, according to Syracuse University's asylum numbers tracking system.
The current administration is using low approval rates as a justification for trying to cut down on asylum cases, Ferguson said. The argument is that if so few are approved, the cases must be illegitimate, which Ferguson says is not the case.
Instead, Ferguson says the low approval rates stem from differences in requirements across districts. New requirements have also made it hard for courts to keep up with a growing backlog of cases, she said.
“DHS seeks to reduce incentives for aliens to file frivolous, fraudulent, or otherwise nonmeritorious asylum applications to obtain employment authorization filed by asylum applicants seeking an employment authorization document...” the proposed rule reads.
But the idea that people would choose to leave their countries, families, friends and the life they know seems preposterous to Munatsi Manyande, executive director of the DASH Network, a DFW-based organization that offers asylum seekers housing while they wait for work permits and for six months after receiving the permit.
“We provide housing, food and friendship,” he said.
The wait is hard and many people suffer anxiety and mental hardship being so far away from loved ones with no way to control what happens to them back home, Manyande said.
“Their families are having to endure their primary bread winners having to flee from the country for safety,” he said.
His organization typically has people in their care for around two years and is able to serve about 35 people at a time. Manyande describes the asylum seekers in the organization's care as people of high integrity who stood up to corruption or other systemic issues in their home countries, and were threatened or tortured because of it.
“This is somebody who was standing up for right ... and eventually had to get out of the country to stay alive,” Manyande said.
After arriving, these asylum seekers are often shocked at how complicated the system is. In their home countries, they stood up for freedoms the U.S. values, like freedom of religion and speech, and arrive in the United States only to get stuck in a long, complicated waiting process.
“The process is already too cumbersome, in my opinion, for someone coming to the U.S. looking for a safe place to start over,” Manyande said.
If the proposed rule takes effect, asylum seekers would have to wait twice as long to begin earning money and paying into the U.S. economy.
Doubling the time these asylum seekers have to wait would put a big strain on the applicants and asylum organizations. Manyande estimates his organization’s clients might end up needing housing for four or five years, which would effectively halve the number of people served.
“The impact would be huge,” he said. “And that would be devastating for the U.S. ... and for the asylum seekers.”
Already, Texas' asylum application approval rate is much lower than the national average. Of the 40,366 cases heard in Texas courts, 32,036 were denied and just 24.3% granted, compared with the 67.9% approved nationwide, according to the Syracuse tracking system.
If the rule goes into effect and doubles the wait time, Ferguson worries that fewer asylum seekers will be able to support themselves before they can work legally.
“You're going to have a people who end up on the street or work without authorization,” she said.
“You're going to have a people who end up on the street or work without authorization." — Pilar Ferguson
At some point, people cannot stand to do nothing, she said. The Trump administration has expressed concern about immigrants living and working in the country illegally, but by increasing the time asylum seekers must wait to work legally, the rule could raise the number of people taking illegal employment, Ferguson said.
“They're kind of painting them into a corner where they're forcing them to do what they don't want them to do,” she said.
Asylum cases fall into two categories: defensive and affirmative. Asylum seekers who apply when they enter the country seek affirmative asylum. Immigrants can only apply for defensive asylum once the deportation process has started.
This year, Texas approved 43.9% of the 4,979 affirmative cases brought to court so far. The state has approved just 15.8% of defensive applications, although there are far more defensive than affirmative cases in court.
People who come to the country seeking asylum usually have no other options. When they apply for asylum status, they provide the United States government with information about where they are and who they are. If their applications are denied, that customarily starts a process by which they must be sent back to the country they fled, Manyande said.
If they're approved, they get to call the U.S. home. But with this rule change, that likelihood would diminish.
“The world knows that there are crazy things happening all over the place, and it's important for people to be able to flee to safety,” Manyande said.
The proposed rule allows a 60-day public comment period through the Federal Reserve website.