On Monday evening, President Trump issued a memo intended to make life more difficult for those seeking asylum in the United States. The memo calls for regulations that, among other things, require asylum seekers to pay a fee to apply for asylum and their first work permit, and denies work permits to immigrants who entered the United States without inspection, or “illegally.”
Since the creation of our asylum system, after the United States signed the Protocol to the Refugee Convention in 1968 and enacted its own Refugee Act in 1980, there has never been a fee to apply for asylum. Filing for asylum is free for a reason under U.S. law and in the vast majority of other countries: Seeking asylum is a human right.
There are already plenty of obstacles and limits to that right in our existing immigration system. For instance, asylum seekers have to wait to receive permission to legally work in the United States. Congress codified a waiting period for work permits for asylum seekers in 1996. Asylum seekers can apply for a work permit 150 days after they have submitted an application for asylum. The work permit is issued sometime after 180 days.
In reality, given the time needed to find and complete the 12-page English-only asylum application and often to find legal assistance to do so, asylum seekers are already waiting nine to 12 months to receive lawful permission to work. That first work permit is currently free to asylum seekers and valid for two years. Requiring a filing fee for the initial work permit and denying work permits to those who enter the United States without inspection adds another significant impediment to lawful authorization, which asylum seekers need to support themselves and their families and contribute to our national economy.
Introducing a fee to apply for asylum and to apply for the first work permit not only is cruel but also goes against common sense and U.S. economic interests. Asylum seekers typically cannot afford to pay even a nominal fee. Trump’s memo does not specify the fee amount, only that it would “cover the cost of adjudication.” But even the rumored $50 fee would be too high for any of our clients. All individuals present in the United States have a legal right to apply for asylum, and that legal right should not depend on ability to pay. Many asylum seekers flee their countries with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the cash in their pockets. Other asylum seekers come with their life savings, which are often quickly depleted as they pay for living expenses awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims.
Years ago, one of us worked with one client who was homeless and lived in her car while she waited for her day in court. One of our current clients lives in a public storage locker because he cannot afford to pay rent. We have asylum-seeking clients who go hungry so that their children can eat, or who drink water to “feel full.” Other clients go without medication to treat chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure because they lack health insurance and money to pay out of pocket for their medications. Asylum seekers are not a population with an ability to pay extraneous fees.
This new fee would also put asylum seekers further at risk of being exploited, or even physically harmed, abused or trafficked within the United States. Asylum seekers are already vulnerable to such predatory behavior. For example, years ago, one of us worked with a young woman from Niger who fled a forced marriage and female genital mutilation. As an asylum seeker in the United States, she had no way to provide for herself and found herself passed from one abusive situation to another. By the time she filed her asylum application, she had been repeatedly raped, held captive and forced to work in various homes. She was providing free child-care in exchange for lodging but forbidden from leaving the house.
And contrary to some misconceptions among the public (and the Trump administration), asylum seekers are generally ineligible for any form of federal or state aid. Indeed, even after they are granted asylum, they do not receive significant support from the government. Between paying for rent, food and other living expenses, and not being able to work for a significant period of time, how will asylum seekers pay the fee?
Banning asylum seekers from work will deprive the U.S. government of the taxes that asylum seekers, just like other immigrants, pay on the wages they receive. Asylum seekers do make real contributions to our communities. Among the asylum seekers we have worked with over the years are doctors, engineers, lawyers, nurses, computer scientists, teachers, professors and more. Also among those asylum seekers are cleaners, taxi drivers, factory workers, gardeners, child-care providers and elder-care specialists. All of them are generating tax revenue for the government, usually far more per year than whatever nominal fee Trump wants them to pay for their asylum application.
Asylum seekers, who have lost everything and been forced to leave their countries and start over in ours, have a tremendous amount to give to our communities if given the chance. Take Constance, for example, one of our West African clients. In 2015, while she was seeking asylum, she commuted two hours by bus each way to a factory to cut fruit during a 12-hour overnight shift. She now works as a French language newscaster for a major news and radio outlet. Another client is a microbiologist who worked waiting tables until he found a job directing a lab at a hospital. As one of our clients said: “I know I’ve lost my country, but I haven’t lost my skills. I can still contribute.” Requiring these individuals to remain idle while jobs go unfilled and immigration court and asylum office backlogs persist could mean years in limbo and is a waste of talent, expertise and the hard work asylum seekers contribute.
Like so many of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, these new requirements will do nothing to actually modernize our immigration system or make life better for Americans. Instead, the proposal would waste valuable human capital and talent that can be harnessed to truly make America great, and preys on those who have already lost everything and came to seek safety in the United States.