U.S. restricts work permits for asylum-seekers, raising fears of homelessness and hunger

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[August 25, 2020] As a single mother of two young children, including her nine-month-old U.S. citizen daughter, W.L. worries about her ability to support her family, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.

The asylum-seeking mother, who says she was a victim of sexual violence in her native Guatemala, does not have a permit to work legally in the U.S., and under a new Trump administration rule taking effect Tuesday, she will not be able to apply for one for the next seven months.

"We need work permits to cover our basic necessities, especially for our children," W.L., who asked for her initials to be used rather than her full name, told CBS News in Spanish.

Since President Trump entered the White House, his administration has implemented and proposed various policies designed to restrict eligibility for U.S. asylum, a humanitarian protection available to foreigners fleeing persecution based on their religion, political views, nationality, race and membership in a "particular social group," like the LGBTQ community and victims of severe domestic abuse who can't turn to their countries' governments for help.

To defend the changes, the administration has argued that longstanding asylum policies and laws encourage unauthorized border crossings and allow economic migrants to misuse the humanitarian protection in order to work in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated by the nation's backlogged immigration courts. The changes being implemented on Tuesday are part of the broadest restriction yet on work permits for asylum-seekers.

The rule will require migrants to wait 365 days from the day they file their asylum petition before applying for work authorization, replacing the previous 150-day timeline. It also disqualifies asylum-seekers from being able to request work permits if they crossed the border illegally. Last week, another rule took effect, scrapping the 30-day window that U.S. government adjudicators previously had to approve work authorization petitions from eligible asylum-seekers.

W.L., who now lives in Ohio with her children, is one of the migrants at the center of a national lawsuit challenging the policies, which advocates say will make low-income asylum-seekers vulnerable to homelessness, hunger, work exploitation and scarce access to medical care. The 28-year-old would have been eligible to apply for a work permit next week under the previous regulations. Because of the new rules, however, she won't be able to apply until April 2021.

Citing her own case, W.L. pushed back on the notion that most migrants seek asylum solely to secure better economic opportunities. According to her asylum application, W.L. was repeatedly raped in Guatemala by her former boss, a powerful and wealthy lawyer. She said he first raped her when she was 19 and subsequently continued to abuse her physically and sexually, impregnating her twice and forcing her to abort one of two pregnancies.

After her son was born, W.L. said the father, her alleged abuser, refused to support him financially. She filed a case in family court. That's when the threats by her alleged abuser's family started, according to the asylum application. W.L. said she filed a police report, but the threats continued, prompting her to trek north to the U.S. southern border with her son, who is now 8.

"We don't come to this country just for money. It's very difficult to leave our homes, our families, and to face that danger along the journey," W.L. said.

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