Justice Department sues SpaceX for the claim it can hire only citizens
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Justice Department sues SpaceX for the claim it can hire only citizens

The Justice Department sued Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday, alleging that the company routinely discriminated against asylum seekers and refugees in its hiring process.

Between 2018 and last year, the lawsuit says, SpaceX officials said on numerous occasions that it could hire only United States citizens and green-card holders because of restrictive export control laws governing the use of rocket and missile technology. The government cited several cases in which the company made this assertion publicly and listed U.S. citizenship as a requirement in job postings, even though “export control laws impose no such hiring restrictions.”

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

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. SpaceX officials have for years asserted in interviews that its hiring practices were dictated by the requirements of a law known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulation.

In one instance, the lawsuit says, Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, posted on Twitter in 2020 that “U.S. law requires at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX, as rockets are advanced weapons technology.” Investigators also found at least 14 public announcements “stating that SpaceX can only hire U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents due to ITAR,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit says that, according to SpaceX data, the company hired only one person out of more than 10,000 hires “who was an asylee and identified as such in his application.” SpaceX made that hire, the lawsuit asserts, approximately four months after the Justice Department’s Immigrant and Employee Rights section had notified the company of its investigation. The lawsuit notes that SpaceX hires for “a wide variety of positions … including welders, cooks, crane operators, information technology specialists, software engineers, dishwashers, business analysts, rocket engineers, marketing professionals, baristas, and more.”

SpaceX in recent years has become one of the top suppliers for NASA and the Pentagon and a trusted partner to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station, as well as sensitive national security satellites. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its seventh crew rotation mission to the station early Friday morning. The Pentagon has also awarded SpaceX a contract to operate its Starlink internet satellite network in Ukraine, where it has been a key communication tool for the Ukrainian military.

In the statement, Clarke said that the Justice Department intends to “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.” She added that “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.”

The lawsuit seeks an order for SpaceX to hire qualified applicants it wrongly said were ineligible and to pay “an appropriate civil penalty as determined by the Administrative Law Judge for each individual discriminated against.” Over the years, the company, based in Hawthorne, Calif., has grown rapidly and has about 11,000 employees at locations in California, Florida, Texas, Washington state and the District of Columbia.

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