SpaceX Sued by Justice Department Over Alleged Asylee, Refugee Discrimination

The Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit against SpaceX, the aerospace company owned by Elon Musk, accusing it of engaging in discriminatory practices against individuals living in the United States under asylum and refugees. The lawsuit, which was filed on Thursday, alleges that SpaceX violated the Immigration and Nationality Act between September 2018 and May 2022 by actively discouraging asylees and refugees from applying for positions at the company and by refusing to hire or consider them.

According to the complaint, Musk and other leadership figures at SpaceX repeatedly made false claims that the company was unable to hire individuals who were not U.S. citizens or green card holders due to “export control laws.” However, the Department of Justice argues that these laws do not enforce such restrictions. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division stated, “Asylees and refugees have overcome many obstacles in their lives, and unlawful employment discrimination based on their citizenship status should not be one of them.”

SpaceX has not yet responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

The Department of Justice’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section initiated an investigation into SpaceX in May 2020. The lawsuit alleges that the company recruits and hires for a variety of white and blue-collar positions, including welders, cooks, crane operators, baristas, dishwashers, IT specialists, software engineers, business analysts, rocket engineers, and marketing professionals.

Between September 2018 and May 2022, at least 14 public job announcements and postings by SpaceX stated that the company could only hire U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents due to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) laws. The lawsuit also references a 2016 video in which Musk claimed that a normal work visa was insufficient to work at SpaceX unless the company could obtain special permission from the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State. In a June 2020 post on X (formerly Twitter), Musk stated that U.S. law required at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX due to rockets being classified as advanced weapons technology.

The Justice Department argues that neither the ITAR nor the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which is another export control law, prohibit asylees or refugees from being hired. The suit explains that ITAR laws restrict an employer’s ability to export certain goods, software, technology, and technical data. However, “‘U.S. persons’ working for U.S. companies can access export-controlled items without authorization from the U.S. government,” states the Department of Justice in the civil complaint. It further clarifies that a ‘U.S. person’ under ITAR and EAR includes a U.S. citizen or national, a lawful permanent resident, a refugee, or an asylee.

The Department of Justice claims that from September 2018 to March 2022, SpaceX’s job applications asked potential candidates to identify their citizenship status, with options including “U.S. citizen or national of the United States,” “U.S. lawful permanent resident,” “refugee under 8 U.S.C. 1157,” “asylee under 8 U.S.C. 1158,” or “other.” Allegedly, the company’s hiring managers and recruiters rejected candidates who were listed as refugees or asylees, using rejection codes such as “not authorized to work/ITAR ineligible,” according to the complaint. The lawsuit further cites an incident in which a recruiter used that rejection code for an asylee with more than nine years of relevant engineering experience, who had also graduated from Georgia Tech University.

Data obtained from SpaceX indicates that out of 10,000 hires made between September 2018 and May 2022, only one individual was an asylee, according to the Department of Justice. This asylee was allegedly hired four months after the Department of Justice initiated its investigation.

The lawsuit seeks an order from a federal judge for SpaceX to discontinue its discriminatory practices, establish fair consideration processes, provide backpay to asylees who were denied employment, and impose civil monetary penalties as determined by the court.