DOJ sues SpaceX for hiring discrimination

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2020. | Image: Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The US Department of Justice is suing Elon Musk’s SpaceX over allegations that it discriminated against asylees and refugees in hiring. In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday, the DOJ claims that, from at least September 2018 to May 2022, SpaceX discouraged refugees and asylees from applying to the company “by wrongly stating that SpaceX can only hire U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.”

The lawsuit states SpaceX “failed to fairly consider” and “refused to hire” the asylees and refugees who ended up applying anyway. It also alleges that SpaceX “wrongly claimed” that the US’s export control laws allowed it to only hire US citizens and lawful residents. Additionally, the DOJ claims SpaceX hired “only” US citizens and green card holders from September 2018 to September 2020.

The lawsuit indicates that SpaceX has been on the DOJ’s radar for some time. In May 2020, the DOJ’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section (IER) opened an investigation into whether SpaceX was discriminating against potential hires based on citizenship or immigration status. However, the DOJ claims SpaceX “failed to provide documents responsive to the IER’s investigation requests.”

According to the lawsuit, SpaceX only provided the documents more than a year later after the IER obtained a subpoena. In November 2022, the IER told SpaceX that it finished its investigation into the company, stating that it “found reasonable cause to believe that SpaceX had engaged in a pattern or practice of unfair immigration-related employment practices.”

Some of the evidence in the lawsuit comes directly from Musk himself. The DOJ cites two videos of Musk speaking about hiring restrictions. Just a week after the investigation started, Musk even wrote in a post on X — formerly Twitter — that “US law requires at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX, as rockets are considered advanced weapons technology.”

“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, the assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, says in a statement.

Over the years, SpaceX has become a vital launch partner for the US government, with the company powering several NASA missions.

The DOJ is seeking fair consideration and back pay for asylees and refugees who “were deterred or denied employment” at SpaceX and is also seeking civil penalties in an amount that will be determined in court. In the meantime, the DOJ is encouraging asylees and refugees to contact the IER if they applied for a job at SpaceX or were discouraged from applying to the company.

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