Some of the most challenging issues faced by immigrants – documented, undocumented, asylees, and refugees alike – are related to finding employment. The key to successful integration of newcomers into society rests upon their ability to find employment and support themselves and their families, yet many barriers can stand in the way of a steady income in America. In many cases, the job market in Massachusetts may vary from the immigrant’s previous one, and skills may not always be transferable. Language barriers and illiteracy can also pose serious challenges for immigrants seeking self-sufficiency. Furthermore, immigrants must navigate an unfamiliar legal system in order to obtain the right to work. While employment is clearly the cornerstone to success in America, an immigrant’s path to employment is often a major challenge.
Work Permits and Eligibility for Employment
As an asylum seeker, you may apply for a work permit (also called Employment Authorization Document or EAD) if at least 150 days have passed since you first filed your application for asylum, and you are still awaiting a decision. Note that you may apply for employment authorization after 150 days have passed, but you will not receive the work permit (the EAD card) until 180 after submitting your application. Once 150 days have passed and you apply for the work permit, the government has 30 days to approve or deny your EAD. If you win your asylum case, you gain the right to work in the U.S. immediately, and do not need to apply for a EAD card. See our section for Asylees and Refugees for more information. There is no fee to apply for your first EAD if you have a pending asylum application or if you have been granted asylum.
Note that the in practice, however, asylum seekers often have to wait for much longer than 150 days before they can apply for their work permit. This is because immigration judges and asylum officers may “stop the clock,” which means that they will place your application on hold and stop counting days towards the 150-day limit. If you’re applying with USCIS, they will send you a receipt notice telling you when it received your application, which will be the date the “clock” starts. Situations that can “stop the clock” includes if you request more time, reschedule your asylum interview, fail to show up for a fingerprinting appointment, or if USCIS requests more evidence from you to make their decision. Once that happens, it can be challenging to get the work authorization clock to start running again, and in the meantime, the asylum seeker is not permitted to work.
“While the majority of developed asylum-granting nations place certain limitations on the right to work for asylum seekers, the United States stands alone in denying both employment and governmental assistance” (Human Rights Watch, 2013).
Unemployment compensation is available to those who are legally authorized to work in the U.S., and who are temporarily out of work, without fault on their parts. From the Department of Unemployment Assistance: “If you’re out of work and able to work, you may be eligible for temporary income called unemployment insurance (UI). If you qualify, you receive weekly payments to help cover your living expenses while you search for new employment. The amount you receive is based on what you were paid in the last year.”
To be eligible for unemployment benefits, you must:
-Have earned at least $4,700 during the last 4 completed calendar quarters, and 30 times the weekly benefit amount you would be eligible to collect
-Be legally authorized to work in the U.S.
-Be unemployed, or working significantly reduced hours, through no fault of your own
-Be able and willing to begin suitable work without delay when offered.
Read more about eligibility criteria via Mass.gov here. You can apply for unemployment compensation online, by phone, and in person. For more information on filing for Unemployment benefits as a non-U.S. citizen, see here.
The Department of Unemployment Assistance offers information in multiple languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Khmer, Lao, Italian, French, Korean and Arabic.
Your rights as a worker in Massachusetts
If you are denied a job or are fired because you are not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, you may be the victim of unlawful discrimination. If you believe you have been discriminated against on the basis of being a non-U.S. citizen, you can contact the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC) at 1-800-255-7688 or 1-800-237-2515 (TDD for hearing impaired). You can read more about the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, which enforces the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, here.
If you work in Massachusetts, you have the right to fair wages, a safe workplace, workers’ compensation, and more. Read more about workers’ rights and safety in Massachusetts at mass.gov here. Even if you are an undocumented worker, certain labor rights, such as entitlement to workers compensation benefit if you are injured or become ill because of your job, may still apply to you. Visit MassLegalHelp.org for frequently asked questions.
If you think your employer is breaking workplace laws, you can call the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Hotline at (617) 727-3465, or (617) 727-4765 for hearing-impaired individuals. Read more about employment and unemployment and seek legal representation at MassLegalHelp.org, and find legal aid via MassLegalServices here.
Legal Assistance and Additional Resources
If you need legal representation, you can use the following tools to find an immigration lawyers in Massachusetts who can help you.
Use MassLegalServices’ Legal Resource Finder to locate lawyers who specialize in employment, taxes or other specific fields.
The Immigration Advocates Networks lets you search for legal aid by state.
The Refugee Immigration Ministry (RIM) is an Interfaith Ministry whose purpose was to offer spiritual care in the detention facilities, but who has expanded their services to include English classes, job placement assistance, and other services. Visit their pages for an overview of programs available for asylum seekers.