US Department of Justice sues SpaceX for hiring discrimination

a black-and-white spacex falcon 9 rocket launches into a cloudy blue sky, with the oceans and mountains in the background.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 52 Starlink satellites from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base on March 17, 2023. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) is suing SpaceX, alleging that the company discriminated against job applicants who are refugees or asylum recipients.

The lawsuit claims that, from September 2018 to May 2022 (and possibly longer than that), SpaceX discouraged refugees and asylees from applying for jobs and discriminated against those who did apply, in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

"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 on Thursday (Aug. 24), the day the suit was filed.

"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," Clarke added.

Related: 8 ways that SpaceX has transformed spaceflight

According to DoJ officials, SpaceX has repeatedly claimed, "in job postings and public statements over several years," that the company can hire only U.S. citizens or green-card holders, thanks to export-control laws.

But such laws, which are designed keep adversary nations from getting ahold of technology vital to U.S. national security, "impose no such restrictions," according to the DoJ.

"Moreover, asylees' and refugees' permission to live and work in the United States does not expire, and they stand on equal footing with U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents under export-control laws," the department wrote in Thursday's statement. 

"Under these laws, companies like SpaceX can hire asylees and refugees for the same positions they would hire U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents," the statement added. "And, once hired, asylees and refugees can access export-controlled information and materials without additional government approval, just like U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents."

Unsurprisingly, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk doesn't think the DoJ's claims hold water. 

"The fundamental principle of ITAR law is that US 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," Musk wrote on X (formerly Twitter) early Friday morning (Aug. 25). ("ITAR" stands for "International Traffic in Arms Regulations.")

And, in a Thursday X post, he claimed that the DoJ is targeting SpaceX for reasons beyond a strict and faithful reading of the law.

"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. We couldn't even hire Canadian citizens, despite Canada being part of NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command]! This is yet another case of weaponization of the DOJ for political purposes," Musk wrote.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • bryant
    Admin said:
    The U.S. Department of Justice is suing SpaceX, alleging that Elon Musk's company discriminated against job applicants who are refugees or asylum recipients.

    US Department of Justice sues SpaceX for hiring discrimination : Read more
    what has this to do with space exploration?
  • Unclear Engineer
    Even if the U.S. law does not require it, I would expect technology companies to do some serious background checking for any applicants, and that would be much harder to do for people whose prior situation led them to seek asylum, or even immigrate legally from other countries. Spying is a real activity, performed not only by foreign governments, but also by competing companies, even within the same country. And actual sabotage is not out of the question among competing national entities.

    So, with respect to the conflicting statements made by the government and SpaceX, maybe this will settle once and for all whether SpaceX can hire Canadians.

    But, who exactly are the legal non-citizen residents who want to work for SpaceX and are not being accepted? It seems to me that there need to be some in order for any legal case to have "standing" for a lawsuit.

    Note that the government agency is "suing" instead of "fining". That indicates some lack of clarity that the government has a real case.