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SpaceX sued by Justice Department over alleged asylee, refugee discrimination

The Department of Justice is suing SpaceX, the aerospace company owned by Elon Musk, over alleged discriminatory practices against people living in the country under asylum and refugees.

The federal government contends in its civil lawsuit, which was filed Thursday, that the company violated the Immigration and Nationality Act between September 2018 and May 2022 by discouraging asylees and refugees from applying to the company and refusing to hire or consider them.

The complaint contends that Musk and SpaceX's leadership repeatedly made false claims that the company couldn't hire anyone who wasn't a U.S. citizen or green card holder, because of "export control laws," but the Department of Justice argued that those laws do not enforce such restrictions.

PHOTO: In this NASA handout, A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Dragon spacecraft on top is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex, on Aug. 21, 2023, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
PHOTO: In this NASA handout, A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Dragon spacecraft on top is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex, on Aug. 21, 2023, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)

"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," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

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SpaceX didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

The Department of Justice's Immigrant and Employee Rights Section opened an investigation into SpaceX in May 2020.

The company recruits and hires for different white and blue-collar positions including welders, cooks, crane operators, baristas and dishwashers, IT specialists, software engineers, business analysts, rocket engineers and marketing professionals, the suit contends.

PHOTO: In this May 29, 2014, file photo, Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, introduces the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo, FILE)
PHOTO: In this May 29, 2014, file photo, Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, introduces the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo, FILE)

From at least September 2018 to at least May 2022, SpaceX posted at least 14 public job announcements and postings that stated "SpaceX can only hire U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents due to ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations]" laws.

The suit also cites a 2016 video of Musk claiming "a normal work visa is insufficient to work at SpaceX unless the company can obtain 'special permission from the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State," and a June 2020 post he made on X, formerly Twitter, where he claimed "U.S. law requires at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX, as rockets are advanced weapons technology."

The Justice Department argued that under ITAR and Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which is another export control law, do not prohibit asylees or refugees.

ITAR laws "restrict an employer's ability to export certain goods, software, technology, and technical data," according to the suit.

"'U.S. persons' working for U.S. companies can access export-controlled items without authorization from the U.S. government," the Department of Justice said in the civil complaint. "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 Dept. of Justice claimed from Sept. 2018 to March 2022, SpaceX job applications asked potential candidates to identify their citizenship status and had the options "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."

The company's hiring managers and recruiters allegedly rejected candidates who were listed as a refugee or a asylee with rejection codes such as "not authorized to work/ITAR ineligible," according to the complaint.

PHOTO: In this April 19, 2022, file photo, the SpaceX headquarters is shown in Hawthorne, Calif. (Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: In this April 19, 2022, file photo, the SpaceX headquarters is shown in Hawthorne, Calif. (Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)

The suit claimed a recruiter used that rejection code for an asylee "who had more than nine years of relevant engineering experience and had graduated from Georgia Tech University."

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Data from SpaceX showed that from Sept. 2018 to May 2022, the company hired 10,000 people and only one was an asylee, according to the Dept. of Justice. That asylee was hired four months after the Department of Justice began its investigation, the suit alleged.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to order SpaceX to cease its practices, implement fair consideration practices and provide backpay for asylees who were denied employment at the company, as well as civil monetary penalties determined by the court.

SpaceX sued by Justice Department over alleged asylee, refugee discrimination originally appeared on abcnews.go.com