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Upwardly Global’s Public Comment on Work Authorization for Asylum Seekers

Upwardly Global’s Public Comment on Work Authorization for Asylum Seekers

Public Comment for Federal Registery

Oct. 10, 2019 – Upwardly Global is a national nonprofit organization committed to building an inclusive, future-ready workforce that embraces the skills of immigrant, refugee, asylum seekers and asylee professionals. Since our founding in 2000, we have supported more than 15,000 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.  Our extensive experience and background assisting asylum seekers and asylees who have secured work authorization positions us to understand, at the most fundamental levels, the importance of their ability to secure work authorization as quickly as possible to facilitate their ability to integrate into the U.S. and achieve self-sufficiency. 

Upwardly Global is deeply concerned about the plan outlined in DHS’s NPRM to remove a 30-day processing regulatory provision for employment authorization document (EAD) applications for asylum seekers. While the stated benefit of the NPRM is to improve DHS’s ability to process a growing backlog of applications for asylum protections [1], Upwardly Global data illustrate that addressing the backlog by denying self-sufficiency to asylum seekers comes at significant humanitarian and economic cost.

Upwardly Global knows first-hand that asylum seekers have considerable skills to offer the U.S. workforce. Since 2017 alone, our organization has been proud to assist more than 300 asylum seekers nationwide in rebuilding their careers in high-demand fields, including IT, engineering, and healthcare, filling critical skills gaps in the U.S. workforce while they seek humanitarian protections in the U.S. Together, Upwardly Global’s cohort of asylum seekers earns more than $17 million annually–an average salary of nearly $55,000 each–contributing an estimated $1.5 million in federal taxes annually and bolstering local economies with consumer spending. 

Recent success stories illustrate the potential and promise that asylum seekers bring to our economy, including: 

  • A scientist from Eritrea. With work authorization and support from Upwardly Global, he is now working in the bioinformation sector in Maryland, earning $50,000 annually. 
  • An educator from Syria. After receiving her EAD, she secured a position as a chemistry teacher at a school in Tennessee and now earns $40,000 annually. 
  • A physician from Iraq. With an EAD and assistance from Upwardly Global, he is an internal medicine resident in a New York-area hospital, earning more than $70,000 annually. 
  • A finance professional from El Salvador. After receiving his EAD, he  enrolled in Upwardly Global’s program and now works as a staff accountant for a nonprofit in the Bay Area, earning $60,000 annually. 
  • A sales professional from Syria. After receiving her EAD, she is now contributing her talents to the pharmaceutical industry in California with a $165,000 salary. 

In its NPRM, DHS acknowledges that delays to EAD processing would stymie economic contributions from future cohorts of asylum seekers, resulting in lost wages, impacts on tax revenues, and costs to employers. Upwardly Global believes that DHS underestimates the scope of asylum seekers’ contributions to our workforce and that the economic and humanitarian costs of the NPRM are likely higher than estimated. Our specific concerns include the following: 

1. DHS underestimates asylum seekers’ economic contributions in estimating the NPRM’s effects on wages and taxes. By DHS’s own data estimates, the proposed rule change could result in $255.88 million to $774.76 million in lost compensation for asylum seekers annually, linked to tax losses from $39.15 million to $118.54 million each year. Estimates in the NPRM were based on a robust “prevailing” minimum wage of $8.25 to calculate the lower bound and a national average wage of $24.98 to calculate the upper bound. The NPRM was also based on the notion that EAD holders “would not have been in the labor force long, and would thus not be expected to earn relatively high wages.” 

However, Upwardly Global data challenge these notions. All of our program participants arrive in the U.S. with college degrees or technical certification from their home countries; half bring experience in STEM, healthcare, or finance fields. The above-average salaries they command after securing EAD illustrate the premium that U.S employers place on their skills and experience. The asylum seekers who have completed Upwardly Global’s program earn an average of $54,875 annually, significantly higher than the national annual mean wage of $51,960. Several program alumni earned six-figure salaries. DHS estimates of the NPRM’s wage and tax impacts are likely low.  

Furthermore, DHS claims that implementing the NRPM will result in overall cost savings to the agency in the form of fewer personnel needed to process EAD applications. These personnel savings ostensibly justify the proposed rule’s negative effects on wages and tax revenues. However, DHS has not estimated personnel costs. The economic estimates and justification of the NPRM warrant deeper analysis. 

2. The burden on U.S. employers will be more significant than described in the NPRM.  In addition to lost wages and tax revenues, the NPRM acknowledges that changes to EAD processing would result in additional costs to companies who hire asylum seekers, in the form of recruitment costs and lost profits. In addressing these costs, the rule assumes that employers will be able to find a “reasonable substitute” for the labor that asylum seekers would have provided.

However, Upwardly Global’s experience in working with 50 employers across the country suggests that asylum seekers often occupy hard-to-fill jobs in the U.S. workforce. Half of our program participants–including asylum seekers–come to the U.S. with backgrounds in the STEM and healthcare fields, industries with well-documented worker shortages in the U.S.

3. The rule will have unintended consequences for our communities.  The proposed rule change comes with significant humanitarian costs. Under the current system, asylum seekers must wait 150 days before applying for EAD. The existing five-month wait period for asylum seekers to work puts them in vulnerable situations, including homelessness, hunger, and limited access to healthcare. The proposed rule would eliminate the current requirement that USCIS process EAD applications within 30 days — meaning that asylum seekers could wait more than six months before being able to apply for jobs. Even now, with guidelines in place, the agency fails to meet the 30-day mandate in more than half of cases.  

In light of the above concerns, we urge DHS to withdraw this proposed rule and instead allow the 30-day EAD processing timeframe to remain in place, or alternatively, to allow asylum seekers to apply for an EAD concurrently with their asylum application.  Upwardly Global calls for the government to build policies that support orderly access to humanitarian protection and equip asylum seekers with the ability to support themselves while their cases are pending. We urge USCIS to champion policies that recognize asylum seekers’ contributions to our economy and build pathways for their full integration into our workforce. 

Sincerely,

Jina Krause-Vilmar

President & CEO
Upwardly Global

 

[1] Upwardly Global is concerned that USCIS has resources available to address the backlog, but they are not being used as such. For example, reports have surfaced that USCIS leadership has asked staff to volunteer time to support other areas of DHS operations, including the administration of the “Remain in Mexico” program in ICE field offices. Such requests, which unnecessarily divert agency resources from its core work of processing asylum and EAD applications, should be discontinued before the agency considers the changes outlined in the NPRM.