I’m a Legal Asylum Seeker. Why Can’t I Work?

I’m a Legal Asylum Seeker. Why Can’t I Work?

I’m a Legal Asylum Seeker. Why Can’t I Work?

Trump-era regulations are forcing asylum seekers like me to beg for help.


As a Syrian asylum seeker in the United States, I face a classic Catch-22: I have applied for asylum, but the new regulations prohibit me from working for at least a year, preventing me from supporting myself as I pursue my asylum claim.

And I am one of the lucky ones. Over the past seven years of living in the United States, I graduated from college and got a graduate degree with generous scholarships, developed a strong command of English, fostered friendships that are akin to family, and thought I had learned to navigate the various US immigration bureaucracies. But even with these advantages, I’m struggling financially as I wait with increasing desperation for the US government to allow me to support myself while seeking this country’s protection.

The US asylum bureaucracy has been a labyrinthine process for decades, but the Trump administration weaponized bureaucratic red tape to tie up the immigration system with more than 400 executive orders, regulations, and other actions. In June 2020, two months after I filed for asylum, the Department of Homeland Security issued a final regulation (FR 85 38532) with multiple changes to the asylum procedure, particularly around employment authorization eligibility.

Under the new regulation, the US government extended the mandatory waiting period to work legally for a person who lodges an asylum claim from 150 to 365 days and removed the 30-day limit to process the employment authorization application after the waiting period. This effectively meant that all asylum seekers would now be ineligible to work for at least 13 months after filing, an impossible waiting time for almost anyone to live without an income, let alone for people fleeing war and persecution.

For years, I wrestled with the fear that my political activism would endanger my family at home in Syria. But when this activism turned into my career and my purpose, I could no longer maintain complete anonymity and decided to seek asylum. I had entered the United States legally and was “within status” as a student. Thus, I filed for asylum affirmatively—not as a defense against deportation. My student visa granted me the option to apply for a year-long work authorization after completing my studies. But today, the one-year mark has passed, my student work authorization has lapsed, and my employer has been compelled by US asylum regulations to terminate my employment. In 2020, an estimated 97,800 people filed for asylum affirmatively, and the regulation change affected most of us.

Given the deliberate “chaos” unleashed by the Trump administration on the US immigration system, there is no doubt that the Biden administration has its work cut out for it to restabilize agencies like the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. US immigration system reforms should also be grounded in respect for human rights.

Unlike other developed nations with individualized asylum procedures, the United States separates the asylum process from the right to employment. But it gets even worse. Not only are asylum seekers here not allowed to work, but during the lengthy asylum procedure, which lasts for years, they are ineligible for any federal benefits: no unemployment payments, no health-care insurance, no food stamps, no housing assistance, and no access to counsel. Expedited processing after the year without employment ends exists on paper, but it is only granted for what immigration officials would deem a dire situation. At least in my experience, lacking a source of income is not considered a dire financial hardship.

The June 2020 regulation extending the work authorization waiting period was introduced as a further deterrent to fraudulent asylum applicants. But placing such an expensive price tag on asylum has the same impact on bona fide applicants. With no sources of income for at least a year, we are reduced to begging for money from friends and relatives or from the few organizations that offer support. Those who are forced to work illegally and are caught can severely damage their chances of receiving asylum and be deported.

Every morning, afternoon, and evening for the past eight weeks, I have checked the website tracking citizenship and immigration applications for any progress, knowing all too well that there will likely be no updates. I could go on and on about the frustration, disappointment, and utter lack of purpose I feel during this limbo, but then again, how can I not consider myself lucky? Money is definitely tight, but I don’t have dependents to worry about or health conditions that require frequent medical attention. Most important, I have many friends who have generously taken me in. But this is not sustainable, and it’s a crushing burden for hundreds of thousands of others.

If I am reduced to begging, let me beg for this: that the Biden administration reverses FR 85 38532 and allows asylum seekers to support themselves, that it works diligently to adjudicate the enormous asylum backlog, and that it stops its recent “Do not come here” rhetoric to asylum seekers. Seeking asylum is a human right and should not come with a price tag.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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