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U.S. to restrict work permits to most asylum-seekers in move to deter border crossers

Washington — The Trump administration released a proposal on Wednesday to restrict work permits for most asylum-seekers, a move designed to deter U.S.-bound migrants whom officials believe come to the country solely for economic reasons. 

Under the proposed rule, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would deny work authorization to most migrants seeking asylum who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation, constructing an economic barrier to the largest group of asylum-seekers in the U.S. The policy would also require all those seeking refuge, whether affirmatively or defensively if undergoing deportation proceedings, to wait one year from when they filed their asylum application to request a work permit. 

With the new guidelines, officials would have more leeway in terminating the work authorization of migrants who receive unfavorable decisions from asylum officers or immigration judges. Felony convictions and arrests for certain crimes would disqualify asylum-seekers from obtaining work authorization. 

The proposed changes also appear to be retroactive in nature, potentially allowing the government to reject work permit renewal requests from asylum-seekers already in the U.S. who would be ineligible under the new guidelines.

"The effects of this would be seriously significant," Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, told CBS News. "We're talking about tens of thousands of people potentially losing their jobs and hundreds of thousands no longer being eligible for work authorization."  

Reichlin-Melnick underscored that employment is necessary to many asylum-seekers whose cases drag on for months or years because of the asylum petition backlogs at both USCIS and the immigration courts. "Because of the long delays in asylum processing, this rule means that some individuals would have to wait five or six years without being legally allowed to work," he said. 

Seeking asylum: An immigrant's journey to America

But Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner who has been leading the agency since June, said the proposal targets those seeking to "exploit" America's asylum system. 

"(Unauthorized migrants) are gaming our asylum system for economic opportunity, which undermines the integrity of our immigration system and delays relief for legitimate asylum-seekers in need of humanitarian protection," Cuccinelli said in a statement Wednesday.

After being published in the Federal Register, the proposed rule will be subject to a 30-day review period in which the public can make comments on it. The next step in the regulatory process is for USCIS to publish a final rule it can enforce. BuzzFeed News first reported that the administration was considering these changes in the summer. 

The proposal unveiled Wednesday is the most recent public effort by the administration to deter migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S-Mexico border. In September, USCIS released the draft of a rule to scrap a requirement for the agency to process work permits for asylum-seekers within 60 days of when the petition is filed. On Thursday, the agency is also set to publish a proposal that would make the U.S. one of only four countries to charge for asylum applications. 

Reichlin-Melnick believes the latest moves by the administration will, if implemented, erect a set of barriers to migrants fleeing persecution and hoping to find a safe haven in the U.S.

"This is like using a rocket launcher to kill a fly," he said. "We're seeing here polices that will reduce the ability of all asylum-seekers — regardless of how strong their case is — from being able to apply for asylum."

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