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Upwardly Global Opposes Fee Increases for Work Authorization

Upwardly Global Opposes Fee Increases for Work Authorization

Public Comment for Federal Registery

December 19, 2019

Upwardly Global is a national nonprofit organization committed to building an inclusive, future-ready workforce that embraces the skills of work-authorized immigrants, including refugees, asylum seekers and asylee professionals. Since our founding in 2000, we have supported more than 14,000 work-authorized, college-educated newcomers–including asylum seekers–with job coaching, networking and skill-building programs, ensuring that they can fully contribute their education, skills and experience to the U.S. workforce.

We have concerns related to abrupt increases in fees for a variety of immigration benefits outlined in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) proposed rule, “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements” (“NPRM”), filed on November 14, 2019,  and are particularly concerned about proposed changes related to fees for asylum seekers to apply for employment authorization (EAD). Accordingly, in response to DHS’s request for feedback on the new fee for EADs for asylum seekers, both affirmative and defensive, we respectfully submit this comment opposing such a fee for consideration.

Since 2017, Upwardly Global has supported more than 300 asylum seekers in rebuilding professional careers in the United States, in industries including IT, engineering, health care and  finance. Our work uniquely positions us to understand how work authorization is critical in allowing asylum seekers to achieve self-sufficiency in the United States while they lawfully pursue their asylum claim in a lengthy legal immigration process. We also see how work authorization benefits local economies by allowing asylum seekers to contribute tax revenues, fill skills gaps, and build vibrant workforces.Upwardly Global’s cohort of 300-plus asylum seekers alone has in-demand skills in IT, engineering, and finance fields. Together, these 309 professionals earn  $18.2 million annually—an average salary of more than $59,000 each—contributing an estimated $2.1 million in federal taxes each year. Recent examples of asylum seekers served by our program include: 

  • A physician from Nigeria with a background in HIV prevention who is now working for a major Chicago-area lab as a Clinical Research Associate.
  • A data scientist from Turkey with a background in IT who is now an analyst with a national payroll company  in New York. 
  • A finance professional from El Salvador who now works as a staff accountant at a Bay-Area nonprofit organization. 

Upwardly Global is concerned that the proposals outlined in the current NPRM will limit asylum seekers’ ability to apply for initial work authorization, currently proposed at $490, stymying both their immediate ability to achieve self-sufficiency as their cases are being considered and also their long-term potential for professional success and economic contributions in this country. 

The asylum seekers in our program report experiencing significant financial hardship during the wait for work authorization; many have been unemployed in their home countries as a result of political persecution and/or have drained their savings to travel to the United States. Even after applying for asylum in the U.S., they are, by definition, not authorized to work for a period of at least six months, a reality that poses additional financial strain. We fear that the proposed fees will create a barrier to self-sufficiency and will have significant, if unintended, humanitarian and economic consequences that will impact the individual asylum seeker and our country.

Our specific concerns include the following: 

  1. A new $490 fee for initial work authorization applications will present a significant barrier to asylum seekers’ ability to work, to achieve self-sufficiency, and to support their families. Levying new fees for initial I-765 applications from asylum seekers, while simultaneously imposing a 20 percent fee hike for all I-765 applications, will create a significant barrier for asylum seekers’ ability to access the ability to work, earn income, and otherwise obtain self-sufficiency while their cases are being considered. Currently, asylum seekers must wait 150 days before filing an I-765 application. During this time, they cannot access work, and therefore cannot earn an income in the United States–an application process that already creates significant financial hardship. Upwardly Global program participants report struggling to make ends meet while seeking asylum in the U.S.. Many have spent significant shares of their personal savings to escape persecution and arrive in the United States, and struggle to afford food and shelter with what remains. Often, asylum seekers must stretch savings to support more than just themselves; for example, the 309 asylum seekers in Upwardly Global’s program have 169 dependent children. One participant, an IT research professional who sought asylum after experiencing political persecution in Turkey, reported having less than $1,000 to support his family of three before being able to apply for work authorization. Furthermore, processing times of EAD applications, once filed, are currently projected by USCIS to take as long as seven months. Human Rights First has further documented how the current 150-day waiting period, alone, confronts many asylum seekers with homelessness, hunger, and limited access to healthcare. Levying a new $490 fee presents an additional, significant financial hurdle that will essentially make work authorization untenable for many asylum seekers to achieve self-sufficiency and contribute to our workforce.
  2. The NPRM fails to recognize the potential impact on U.S. employers. While asylum is, by definition, a form of humanitarian and political protection, Upwardly Global recognizes that asylum seekers make significant contributions to the U.S. workforce and economy as well. Nearly 65 percent of the asylum seekers in Upwardly Global’s program come to the U.S. with experience in STEM and healthcare fields, industries with well-documented worker shortages in the U.S. Potential delays to their ability to work, imposed by levying a new fee for EAD, will keep this talent out of the workforce, posting hardship for employers. Other recent proposed rules, including DHS Docket No. USCIS-2018-0001 (“Removal of 30-Day Processing Provision for Asylum Applicant-Related Form I-765 Employment Authorization Applications”) and DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0011 (“Asylum Application, Interview, and Employment Authorization for Applicants”), acknowledge that employers may face difficulties in finding reasonable labor substitutes if asylum seekers are kept out of the workforce, especially given the current low levels of unemployment in the U.S. However, this NPRM includes no such analysis of the potential workforce effects of levying new fees for EAD. The potential impact on employers warrants additional analysis.
  3. “Discretionary” fee waivers could create barriers and delays for low-income applicants. While Upwardly Global is relieved to see that waivers are being included in the NPRM for affirmative asylum seekers, we believe that the waiver should be available to both affirmative and defensive asylum seekers. Furthermore, proposals to make I-765 fee waivers “discretionary” for affirmative asylum seekers from low-income households may cause additional delays and hurdles in processing. Upwardly Global understands that many asylum seekers–including most of the people in our program–experience poverty, homelessness, hunger, and other challenges before being able to apply for work authorization and achieve self-sufficiency. Many spend significant shares of their personal savings to arrive to the United States and struggle to survive on what remains. According to the NPRM, asylum seekers experiencing poverty–with incomes 125% below the Federal Poverty Level–may qualify for a fee waiver to file an I-765 application, yet it fails to outline how these petitions will be considered. As is, the agency faces significant backlogs in processing I-765 applications, with as much as a seven month wait, failing to meet its current 30-day mandate in more than half of cases. While we are fully in support of fee waivers, we are concerned that the proposal to make this waiver “discretionary” may cause additional delays and hurdles in processing applications, and would recommend an elimination of the proposed fee for EADs altogether. [1]
  4. The cumulative effects of recent NPRMs essentially puts work authorization out of reach for asylum seekers. The changes outlined in this NPRM, if implemented in tandem with the plans outlined in other recent proposed rules, including DHS Docket No. USCIS-2018-0001 (“Removal of 30-Day Processing Provision for Asylum Applicant-Related Form I-765 Employment Authorization Applications”) and DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0011 (“Asylum Application, Interview, and Employment Authorization for Applicants”) will have the cumulative result of effectively putting work authorization out of reach for asylum seekers. We are concerned that the combined effects of these NPRMs–levying a new fee for not only the underlying asylum application but also imposing a new and increased filing fee for the EAD, while also doubling the amount of time asylum seekers must wait to apply and removing established guidelines for processing the form–will essentially make work authorization unattainable for asylum seekers who otherwise have no means to access work, income, or self-sufficiency in this country. The repercussions of hindering access to work authorization for asylum seekers impact not only those individuals, but also their families, communities and the United States as a whole. Upwardly Global respectfully encourages DHS to re-evaluate its justifications in the NPRM and the foreseeable harms caused by it by taking into consideration the prospective cumulative impacts of all of the other related and relevant  proposed rules.
  5. The NPRM does not consider the significant humanitarian and economic costs of levying new fees. Upwardly Global encourages DHS to look beyond its revenue goals to also consider the external costs of abrupt fee hikes, especially the humanitarian and economic impact of potentially limiting asylum seekers’ ability to apply for work authorization. DHS projects that proposed changes will require approximately 300,000 asylum applicants to pay a new $490 fee for initial filings of I-765 EAD forms each year, generating approximately $147 million in revenue for the agency. If, however, the proposed fees have the effect of keeping asylum seekers from accessing employment authorization, the agency must consider economic impact–lost salaries, tax revenues, and consumer spending–as part of its calculation. Assuming that these 300,000 asylum seekers would earn just earn minimum wage–an annual salary of $15,080–thwarting their ability to work would represent $4.5 billion in lost salary earnings.The $59,043 average annual salary of the asylum seekers in Upwardly Global’s program indicate that actual economic impact would most likely be much higher. However, the NRPM currently lacks this cost-benefit analysis, and thus does not provide adequate justification for the newly imposed fee. 

In light of the above concerns, we urge DHS to withdraw this proposed rule and instead implement more modest and sustainable fee increases, or consistently waive fees for initial I-765 applications from low-income asylum seekers, regardless of whether they are defensive or affirmative filers. Upwardly Global calls for the government to build policies that equip asylum seekers with the ability to support themselves while their cases are pending, and recognizes their potential for significant contributions to our nation’s workforce and economy. 

Sincerely,

Jina Krause-Vilmar

President & CEO

Upwardly Global

 

[1]  While the NPRM recognizes that Section 208(d)(3) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) dictates that the fees imposed on asylum applicants filing for work authorization are limited and that “[s]uch fees shall not exceed the Attorney General’s costs in adjudicating the applications,’’ DHS reasons that the statute allows for increased fees so long as it follows the general requirements of INA 286(m). (NPRM at 62318). We respectfully disagree with such reasoning and reading of INA 286(m), which, on its face, makes it clear that asylum applicants should be spared paying fees.  Congress directed in Section 286(m) “That fees for providing adjudication and naturalization servicesmay be set at a level that will ensure recovery of the full costs of providing all such services, including the costs of similar services provided without charge to asylum applicants or other immigrants.”  (Emphasis added).  We believe that the EAD application for asylum seekers is included among the “services provided without charge to asylum applicants,” and urge DHS to reconsider its interpretation of the INA 286(m), in addition to considering the additional barriers to self-sufficiency that such an interpretation of the statute would impose upon asylum seekers.
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