PORTLAND, Maine — Federal officials and their aides Monday said they are ready to try to help asylum seekers more quickly obtain permission to work.
But they were also blunt about the likelihood of speedy results.
Immigration reform “is a slow political turtle in the House,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said during a 75-minute City Hall meeting with a group of Maine mayors.
Travis Kennedy, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said prospects in the Senate are not much better.
“I don’t think we are going to have a Christmas present for you this year, but we are going to try,” Kennedy said.
Afterwards, Pingree said she will introduce legislation mirroring King’s bill to reduce the 150-day waiting period for work permits for asylum seekers. The bills would amend a law passed 20 years ago.
Pingree, Kennedy, and Jen Rice and Kate Norfleet from the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, were invited by Mayor Michael Brennan and members of the Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development to discuss immigration issues, most notably how to get asylum seekers jobs instead of General Assistance.
“This is a positive development for us if we seize the opportunity,” Brennan said.
Joining him were Augusta Mayor David Rollins, Saco Mayor Don Pilon and Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton.
“We do have a lot of very well-educated people in the asylee category who come to us begging for work,” Hilton said.
Westbrook and Portland joined the Maine Municipal Association in a lawsuit against the Maine Department of Health and Human Services over a policy disqualifying undocumented immigrants from eligibility for General Assistance benefits. Hilton said Westbrook continued to provide vouchers for asylum seekers at an estimated $20,000 per year.
In Portland, the financial need was greater, an estimated $4.1 million, but Brennan said the best solution is getting asylum seekers who are not allowed to receive federal social assistance, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to work as quickly as possible.
Brennan said the solution will benefit immigrants and businesses facing labor shortages.
“We’ve been having the wrong debate,” he said. “The debate should be how do we have a coordinated response at the federal, state and local level about how to attract people.”
Chris Hall, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO, said the local labor shortage is acute and immigrants have skills to offer.
“The Portland region needs a workforce desperately. What we are discussing today is one portion of solving the problem,” he said. “I think for what the federal government can help us with, we need to make a trip to Washington.”