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Judge won’t force feds to speed up work permit renewals for asylum seekers

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Judge won’t force feds to speed up work permit renewals for asylum seekers

  • The concertina or 'razor' wire installed in Nogales, Arizona in Feb. 2019.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe concertina or 'razor' wire installed in Nogales, Arizona in Feb. 2019.

A federal judge, on Wednesday, denied a request from five asylum seekers to force the U.S. government to speed up work permit renewals.

Immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. can stay in the country while their applications are pending. They can also apply for a temporary work permit, which they need in order to legally obtain a job and, in most states, a driver's license.

Work authorization permits last for two years and then renew automatically for 180 days. After that, asylum seekers must apply for renewals. The Department of Homeland Security's own policy states that each work permit renewal will be adjudicated within 180 days. But in a lawsuit filed last month, the five asylum seekers said the government takes much longer than 180 days to approve the renewals, leading to expired work permits and lost jobs.

At a hearing last week, plaintiffs' attorney Emma Winger said one of the asylum seekers, identified in the suit as Tony M., waited for a year for his work permit to be renewed.

In an order denying the request for an injunction, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney wrote the 180-day deadline is less a mandatory rule imposed on the Department of Homeland Security than a goal set by the department itself. She found when it comes to approving work permits, "courts have found delays of several years are not unreasonable."

Winger, a staff attorney for the American Immigration Counsel, said the ruling is "obviously disappointing."

"It’s a decision that leaves thousands of people without jobs," she said.

Chesney also denied the plaintiffs' request for class certification, finding each plaintiff would need to be examined individually for the harm caused by the government's delay. Winger said the suit would nonetheless continue.

Of the five plaintiffs, three have had their work permits renewed since the complaint was filed. The two others — Karen M., a mother of three and a former McDonald's manager, and Dayana Vera de Aponte, a behavior technician for special needs children — are still pending.

"There’s really no explanation for why their applications are pending for so long," said Winger. "I anticipate the agency will process them and they’ll get back to work — obviously not before they’ve lost their jobs."

The government has blamed the work permit backlog on COVID, which among other things caused the closure of centers where fingerprints are taken. Staffing shortages and a spike in employment authorization applications in the spring of 2021 also added to the backlog.

"I don’t think they're doing their job well enough," said Winger. "These are applications that take 12 minutes to process. They’re not getting it done."

The U.S. Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

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