Under U.S. immigration laws, only certain immigrants are allowed to work, usually after they apply for a work permit called an Employment Authorization Document (or EAD). Some years ago, asylum applicants were allowed to get an EAD as soon as they'd submitted their application for asylum and work while their case was being considered -- but no longer.
Now, in order to be granted a work permit, you have to either
- win your asylum case (which may take several years if you go through a number of appeals), or
- be left waiting 150 days or more with no initial decision on your application from the asylum office or, after a referral, from the immigration court.
Since winning your asylum case in order to get a work permit is pretty self-explanatory, let's look at some unique issues raised by the second option -- getting a work permit if there's been no decision on your case within 150 days of your application.
Given that long waits are a common part of every type of immigration application, you would think you could count on 150 days passing without any decision on your asylum application. In practice, however, not many asylum applicants obtain a work permit this way. For one thing, the U.S. government tries very hard to make its initial decision quickly, so a number of applicants find that they've been referred to immigration court for a hearing, but have no legal way to find a job so that they can afford to hire an attorney. For another thing, the government is allowed to "stop the clock" (stop counting the 150 days) for a number of reasons, such as if you request more time or fail to show up for a fingerprint appointment. Applicants and their lawyers find that sometimes the 150-day clock gets stopped without their hearing about it, perhaps even based on a government mistake -- and that it's very hard to get it started up again.
This obviously creates huge hardships for asylum applicants, many of whom end up working odd jobs or borrowing from friends in order to pay an attorney -- on top of their living expenses -- while their asylum case is pending. Others are lucky enough to find a nonprofit organization that provides free attorneys to asylum applicants (the U.S. government itself does not provide any such services).
If You're Allowed to Apply for a Work Permit
Of course, you may be fortunate to have your asylum application approved early on or to wait 150 days with no initial decision. In either such a case, you'll need to take steps to apply for a work permit.
The application process involves filling out USCIS Form I-765. You can access this form online at www.uscis.gov (click the "Forms" link and scroll down to Form I-765 in the numerical list of forms). Most of this form is self-explanatory. On Question 16, applicants who've been waiting for 150 days or more with no decision should enter "(c) (8)." Those whose asylum application has already been approved should enter "(a) (5)." Follow the instructions on the form regarding what to include with the application, and where to submit it.
For in-depth information on asylum and refugee protections and all key immigration law issues, see Nolo's book U.S. Immigration Made Easy by Ilona Bray (Nolo).