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Asylum-seekers ask judge to order feds to speed up renewals of work permits

By law, feds have 180 days to process work permits for asylum seekers. A group of them claim it's taking 10 months or more to hear back.

Five asylum seekers asked a federal judge Friday to force the U.S. government to speed up employment authorization renewals.

"These are work permits for people the agency has already determined are eligible to work," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, Emma Winger. "This is not a heavy lift. Yet the consequences of failing to do it are really significant. The harm is meaningful."

Federal law allows those applying for asylum in the United States to stay in the country while awaiting a decision. They may also apply for temporary work authorization, which they would need to legally obtain a job and, in some states, a driver's license. Those temporary work authorizations last two years, but can be renewed 180 days at a time. The first renewal is automatic, but each subsequent renewal must be applied for.

The Department of Homeland Security's own regulations state each application for renewal should be adjudicated within 180 days of receipt. But, according the class action complaint filed by the five asylum seekers in November, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) "is routinely exceeding that deadline, taking 10 months or more to grant or deny [a work permit] renewal request for an asylum applicant." As a result, the plaintiffs say they "have lost, or will soon lose, their jobs, businesses, driver’s licenses, ability to pay for basic necessities such as housing and food, access to health insurance, professional licenses, and other benefits."

The five plaintiffs include Tony N., a truck driver; Heghine Muradyan, a medical doctor; Karen M., a pregnant mother of three and a manager at a McDonald's; Jack S., an Apple employee; and Dayana Vera de Aponte, a registered behavior technician for special needs children.

"Plaintiffs work in essential industries where demand for workers is especially great," the complaint reads. "Dr. Muradyan cared for COVID-19 patients in tents when her hospital was at 150% capacity."

Lawyers for the federal government blamed the backlog on the pandemic.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact," said Justice Department attorney Kevin Hirst. "Budget shortfall required a hiring freeze. Centers were shut down."

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An August 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office found the total number of applications awaiting approval from Citizenship and Immigration Services (including a range of other applications, like applications for citizenship) nearly doubled between 2015 and 2018, and remained more or less flat until September 2020, the last month of data included in the report.

Hirst said that the government is working to chip away at the backlog, and has made real progress. Since the complaint was filed, three of the plaintiffs have had their work permits renewed. The applications of Karen M. and Dayana Vera de Aponte are still pending.

"We don’t have a tremendous amount of delay as to these remaining people," said U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney, who's presiding over the case. The two remaining plaintiffs, she said, had only been without work authorization for a little more than a month. "It’s not like they’ve been struggling for an inordinate amount of time."

Of the agency's 180-day deadline for processing work permit renewals, Chesney said: "I think it’s a goal, but it’s not a mandate."

Winger argued that the delays were, in some cases, extraordinary and unnecessary.

"The government hasn’t provided any reason why it took a year to process Tony M.’s application," she said. "We don’t have reason for delay in these cases."

The asylum seekers have asked Chesney for class certification so all asylum seekers awaiting work permit renewals could be considered plaintiffs. They also asked the judge to issue an injunction forcing the government honor its own 180-day deadline.

Hirst said an injunction would "have a drastic impact on other agency priorities. This is going to be a massive haul for the agency. It's not possible for us to meet that kind of deadline," he said.

Chesney declined to rule from the bench, saying she would take some time to review the filings and "mull over what you’ve said."

"There's good arguments on both sides," she said. "There are people that have real concerns on a human level."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent at 'tent-like' facility in Tucson , set up in April, 2021 to manage children who traveled to the U.S. without parents or guardians.