Group photo from February 2015 marking the departure of a Dragon capsule from SpaceX headquarters. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department has filed suit against SpaceX, alleging the company discriminated against asylum seekers and refugees in hiring.

The department announced Aug. 24 that it filed a suit with the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which handles cases related to immigration law, claiming that SpaceX discriminated against asylees — persons granted asylum — and refugees for several years.

The Justice Department argues that SpaceX unlawfully denied employment to asylees and refugees based on the company’s interpretation of export control regulations that limit access to controlled items to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The suit includes several comments from SpaceX officials, including Chief Executive Elon Musk, stating that it could only hire citizens and “green card” holders in order to comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which governs launch vehicle and other space components. Those regulations often include severe penalties for any violations.

However, the Justice Department noted that asylees and refugees are also considered “U.S. persons” under ITAR and other export control regulations, and can be treated like citizens and permanent residents in that they do not need authorization to handle export-controlled items. In addition, export control regulations do not include employment or hiring restrictions, the suit stated.

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

It’s unclear how many people were affected by SpaceX’s hiring restrictions. The suit alleges that the discrimination against asylees and refugees dated back to at least September 2018 and lasted to at least May 2022, but the suit included statements from Musk and others at the company as far back as 2012 indicating it hired only citizens and permanent residents. The suit stated that SpaceX “repeatedly” rejected applicants who identified themselves as asylees or refugees, but did not give a number.

The Justice Department asked the court to order SpaceX to change its hiring practices and provide “fair consideration” to applications it previously rejected, including hiring those who were qualified for employment. Those individuals would also be eligible for back pay with interest, while SpaceX could be forced to pay an “appropriate civil penalty.”

SpaceX has not commented on the suit, but it appears to have already changed its hiring practices. Job listings, such as one for a launch engineer, now explicitly state that applicants have to be U.S. citizens, permanent residents, refugees or asylees.

Other space companies use varying language, but with similar effect, in their job postings. Blue Origin states in its job postings, like one for a software engineer, that applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents “or lawfully admitted into the U.S. as a refugee or granted asylum.” A United Launch Alliance job listing for a propulsion test engineer instead only mentions being a “protected individual” as an option other than being a citizen of permanent resident. That term is defined under federal law to include refugees and asylees.

Relativity Space states in its job listings, such as one for a senior aerodynamics engineer, that applications must be U.S. persons. That is defined under federal law to include protected individuals. However, Rocket Lab states in job postings for its U.S. offices, like for a spacecraft mechanical design lead, that an “applicant must be a U.S. citizen as defined by ITAR.” But the regulation cited in the application instead defines a U.S. person, a more inclusive definition than U.S. citizen.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...