Feds Agree To Changes for Asylum Seekers

Apr 15, 2013

Naturalization ceremony at the Grand Canyon.
Naturalization ceremony at the Grand Canyon.
Credit USCIS

Attorneys with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle say they’ve reached agreement with federal officials on a nationwide class action lawsuit.  The case was filed on behalf of immigrants requesting asylum in the US who say they face persecution or harm in their home countries. The settlement aims to speed up the process for asylum seekers to get a work permit.

The lawsuit centers on what’s called the “asylum clock.”  It starts ticking when a person files a petition for asylum in the US. When the clock hits six months, immigration law says the applicant is eligible for a work permit. Or at least it’s supposed to work that way.

The wait can often be much longer said Chris Strawn, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Strawn said judges can stop the clock, or court backlogs create delays, causing some people to wait years for the legal right to work. He said one plaintiff in the lawsuit waited a decade for his case to be resolved.

“During that time they’re not legally authorized to work,” Strawn said. “So that means they need to rely on friends, family, or perhaps some limited social services in order to meet their basic needs – or work unlawfully. So it really puts people in a catch-22.”

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the federal lawsuit in 2011. On April 11, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security agreed to a preliminary settlement. It still needs approval by Judge Richard Jones, the federal judge overseeing the case.

Strawn said the settlement clarifies and changes some rules about the "asylum clock," such as how it starts, who can stop it and for how long. If approved, Strawn is hopeful that more clients would get the right to work if their case is delayed for more than six months. And there’s a good chance of delay - the average wait time in immigration court is 555 days, or about a year and a half.

On average, about 50,000 people apply for asylum in the US every year. Nearly half are denied.