By Zachary Stieber
A new lawsuit against SpaceX is an example of the politicization of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), businessman Elon Musk says.
President Joe Biden’s DOJ on Aug. 24 sued Mr. Musk’s company over its alleged preference to hire U.S. citizens and permanent residents over people granted asylum or refugee status.
The company “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, assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s civil rights division, said in a statement.
Mr. Musk said he has been told that the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) required SpaceX to hire permanent residents, who have green cards, and American citizens.
“SpaceX was told repeatedly that hiring anyone who was not a permanent resident of the United States would violate international arms trafficking law, which would be a criminal offense,” Mr. Musk wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, after the suit was made public.
“We couldn’t even hire Canadian citizens, despite Canada being part of NORAD! This is yet another case of weaponization of the DOJ for political purposes,” Mr. Musk added.
In another post, he said that the fundamental principle of ITAR “is that U.S. companies who have advanced weapons technology, such as rockets with intercontinental range, must hire people who are permanent American residents, so that the technology does not fall into the hands of countries who wish us harm.”
ITAR is a set of U.S. rules that govern companies that produce certain items and technology.
SpaceX produces rockets.
ITAR restricts access to the items and tech to U.S. persons, defined as U.S. citizens, permanent residents, refugees, and asylees. Foreign persons, who need authorization from the federal government, include people with work visas who lack permanent resident status.
Mr. Musk and other SpaceX officials have said over the years that to comply with ITAR and other regulations, they would focus on or only hire U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
“U.S. law requires at least a green card to be hired at SpaceX, as rockets are considered advanced weapons and technology,” Mr. Musk said in 2020.
Officials followed through by rejecting applicants who have asylum or refugee status, according to the new suit.
But the interpretation of the rules is incorrect, the DOJ said, and violates a different law that prohibits discrimination against applicants over their citizenship status or national origin.
“SpaceX’s discriminatory hiring practices were routine, widespread, and longstanding, and harmed asylees and refugees,” the suit states.
The DOJ issued guidance (pdf) earlier this year stating that ITAR and a related set of rules “don’t contain employment or hiring requirements,” so they “don’t require employers or recruiters, including staffing agencies, to limit jobs or recruitment to U.S. citizens, or workers with other citizenship or immigration statuses.”
The suit was submitted to an administrative law court that deals with issues relating to the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Some critics said the suit didn’t appear to hold up.
“So, if I let a non-U.S. citizen see our rocket hardware, I go to ITAR jail, but if I don’t hire a non-U.S. citizen, I get sued by DoJ. Got it,” Tom Mueller, a rocket developer, wrote on X.
Max Meyer, an investor, said that there’s a longstanding principle in the United States that only citizens and permanent residents are able to work on highly sensitive technologies, such as rockets.
Others questioned the motivation of the suit, pointing to how President Joe Biden said in 2022 that Mr. Musk’s connections to other countries were “worthy of being looked at.” The White House has also criticized Mr. Musk, including describing him as an “anti-labor billionaire.”
“The weaponization of government agencies needs to stop,” Mr. Musk said. “This fundamentally undermines public faith in the justice system.”