US sues SpaceX, alleging discrimination against hiring asylees and refugees

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By SAMANTHA MASUNAGA | Los Angeles Times

Elon Musk’s SpaceX discriminated against asylees and refugees by discouraging them from applying for jobs and by refusing to consider or hire them because of their citizenship status, the Justice Department alleges in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

In an investigation, the Justice Department found that the actions taken by company recruiters and by “high-level officials” to discourage asylees and refugees from seeking jobs at the Hawthorne, California, aerospace company amounted to a de facto ban on their hiring, in violation of federal laws.

For instance, the suit says, Musk tweeted in June 2020 to his then-36 million followers: “U.S. law requires at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX, as rockets are considered advanced weapons technology.”

SpaceX has engaged in such behavior from at least September 2018 to May 2022, according to the Justice Department’s lawsuit. The suit says SpaceX did hire one asylee out of more than 10,000 companywide hires during this time, but that hiring came about four months after SpaceX was notified of the Justice Department’s investigation.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

SpaceX wrongly said in job postings and public statements that it could hire only U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, citing federal regulations and export control laws, according to the Justice Department. The company’s own hiring records show that SpaceX “repeatedly” rejected applicants who were asylees or refugees “because it believed that they were ineligible to be hired” due to these regulations, the lawsuit says.

Aerospace and defense companies such as SpaceX are subject to export control laws, including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, that govern the manufacture and export of defense-related products such as rockets. But asylees and refugees are on “equal footing” with U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents under those export control laws, the Justice Department said.

In one instance, the lawsuit says, when an asylee who had graduated from Georgia Tech and had more than nine years of relevant engineering experience applied for a job, a SpaceX recruiter labeled the applicant as disqualified: “not authorized to work/ITAR ineligible.”

“Asylees and refugees have overcome many obstacles in their lives,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s civil rights division said in a statement, “and unlawful employment discrimination based on their citizenship status should not be one of them.”

The Justice Department lawsuit seeks for SpaceX to stop these hiring practices, pay a yet-to-be-determined civil penalty and hire applicants who were harmed by the hiring practices and were qualified for jobs at the company.