DOJ sues SpaceX alleging hiring discrimination

A Falcon 9 rocket is displayed outside the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) headquarters on January 28, 2021 in Hawthorne, California.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice sued SpaceX on Thursday, alleging Elon Musk’s space company discriminated in its hiring practices against refugees and people granted asylum in the U.S.

The lawsuit says between 2018 and 2022, SpaceX “wrongly claimed” that export control laws limited its hiring to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

The DOJ has been investigating SpaceX since June 2020, when the department’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section received a complaint of employment discrimination from a non-U.S. citizen.

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

Clarke added that the DOJ’s investigation found “SpaceX recruiters and high-level officials took actions that actively discouraged asylees and refugees from seeking work opportunities at the company.”

According to data SpaceX provided, the DOJ said that over a nearly four period and across more than 10,000 hires, the company “hired only one individual who was an asylee and identified as such in his application.”

That lone hire came about four months after the DOJ notified SpaceX of its investigation.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. The suit was filed in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a division of the DOJ that adjudicates immigration cases.

The DOJ lawsuit seeks to win “fair consideration and back pay for asylees and refugees who were deterred or denied employment at SpaceX due to the alleged discrimination,” as well as civil penalties and policy changes from the company.

In 2021, the DOJ’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section alleged that SpaceX was stonewalling a subpoena related to its investigation and requested a judge order that SpaceX comply with its request for documents related to how the company hires. SpaceX had filed a petition with a DOJ administrative tribunal to dismiss the subpoena on grounds that it exceeded the scope of IER’s authority, but that petition was denied.

IER opened its probe after a man named Fabian Hutter complained that SpaceX discriminated against him in March 2020 when he was asked about his citizenship status during a job interview for a technical strategy associate position.

Hutter is not a U.S. citizen, but according to a document filed by SpaceX in response to a DOJ subpoena in 2021, he is a “lawful permanent [U.S.] resident holding dual citizenship from Austria and Canada.”

Hutter declined to comment on the suit when contacted by CNBC.

Read the DOJ’s lawsuit below:

– CNBC’s Dan Mangan contributed to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the U.S. Department of Justice sued SpaceX, alleging the company discriminated in its hiring practices against refugees and people granted asylum in the U.S. A previous version misstated the nature of the alleged violation.

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