The Biden administration on Aug. 24 sued a company owned by Elon Musk, alleging that the firm discriminates against immigrants.
“Our investigation found that SpaceX failed to fairly consider or hire asylees and refugees because of their citizenship status and imposed what amounted to a ban on their hire regardless of their qualification, in violation of federal law,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s civil rights division, said in a statement.
SpaceX officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Immigration and Nationality Act was updated in 1986 to bar companies from discriminating against refugees and people granted asylum. The law applies to all steps of hiring, including recruiting and interviewing.
Illegal immigrants are granted asylum or refugee status, giving them permission to remain in the country indefinitely. They aren’t given green cards. In contrast, immigrants who become lawful permanent residents are given green cards.
Mr. Musk, who is SpaceX’s CEO, is among the company officials who have said the company would only hire citizens or those with permanent status.
“U.S. law requires at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX, as rockets are considered advanced weapons and technology,” he wrote in one social media post in 2020.
Mr. Musk has said the hiring requirements are to comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which governs companies such as SpaceX that manufacture certain items and technology.
Normal work visas aren’t enough to secure a job at SpaceX unless the company can get “special permission” from the government, Mr. Musk said during a 2016 conference.
In another public statement, he said his first piece of advice to people who aren’t U.S. citizens and want to work at SpaceX would be to “do anything you can to get a green card.”
That understanding of the law was incorrect, and the way it was applied was illegal, according to the new lawsuit.
SpaceX manufactures rockets that have flown astronauts to the International Space Station, as well as other spacecraft. One of its specialties is producing reusable rockets that can land and fly again rather than burning up upon reentry into the atmosphere. The company has received billions in government contracts since its start in 2002, including a recent $1.4 billion extension to its contract with NASA.
Actions by Recruiters, OfficialsSpaceX recruiters regularly told job candidates that, with a few exceptions, the company was forced to only hire U.S. citizens or permanent residents, according to the government’s investigation.
“Due to U.S. Export Compliance regulations, SpaceX can only offer employment to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents,” a SpaceX recruiter said during a recruiting event at a university in Georgia in 2020.
A job announcement in a chat forum posted that same day said that people “sadly must be a US citizen” to apply.
SpaceX’s application, given to prospective workers, included a section for candidates to mark their status by selecting from options such as “U.S. citizen or national of the United States” and “asylee.”
Codes in SpaceX’s system enabled officials to reject job candidates for being unauthorized to work or ineligible under the regulations. Company officials used the rejection code repeatedly for years, the government’s investigation found.
Those rejected included an engineer who graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
On other occasions, officials used other rejection codes such as “does not meet basic qualifications,” but the rejections were actually for the lack of citizenship or a green card, according to the legal complaint.
SpaceX only hired U.S. citizens and permanent residents from Sept. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2020, the government said. SpaceX hired a single asylee before May 2022, after the government notified the company of its investigation. No refugees were hired between Sept. 1, 2018, and May 2022.
“Our investigation also found that SpaceX recruiters and high-level officials took actions that actively discouraged asylees and refugees from seeking work opportunities at the company,“ Ms. Clarke said. ”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.
“Through this lawsuit, we will hold SpaceX accountable for its illegal employment practices and seek relief that allows asylees and refugees to fairly compete for job opportunities and contribute their talents to SpaceX’s workforce.”
The government asked the court to order SpaceX to stop its discriminatory hiring practices and to pay fines for each instance of discrimination.
The government also wants SpaceX to reconsider all applicants rejected due to their statuses and to hire any that are found to have qualified. For each person hired, the court should order the company to pay them as if they were hired soon after applying, the government says.