Cots and belongings stand in rows atop the basketball court in the Portland Expo building on Wednesday. Hundreds of new asylum seekers, mainly from The Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, are now being temporarily housed in the building. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The Trump administration has unveiled a plan to deny work permits to asylum seekers crossing the border without authorization.

The acting head of U.S. Immigration Services said the new rules are aimed at deterring asylum seekers from illegally entering the country to get work permits.

Right now, asylum seekers can get a work permit six months after applying for asylum, but under the Trump administration proposal, asylum seekers would have to undergo a lengthy background check, which could delay their ability to work in the U.S. by a year or even longer.

Damas Rugaba is a former asylum seeker from Rwanda, who’s now a director at the Greater Portland Immigration Welcome Center.

He said asylum seekers who came to Maine, including the more than 400 who were sheltered in the Portland Expo this summer, are here for two reasons: to flee persecution in their homeland, and to work and build a new life in the U.S.

“They’re here to work, especially in Maine with the shortage in workforce. These people want to get into employment. They don’t want to be receiving General Assistance or any of that,” Rugaba said. “There’s no dignity in that.”

Many of those asylum seekers, and other immigrants and refugees, are now enrolled in Portland Adult Education classes, about 2,000 of them in all.

Some are learning English, but they’re also getting their GEDs and getting job training and certifications.

Portland Adult Education Executive Director Anita St. Onge said it makes no sense to make asylum seekers, here legally, wait even longer to be able to work and contribute to society.

“The more obstacles we put in the way, the more concerns there are both for the asylum-seekers themselves, as well as the taxpayers, and the employers,” St. Onge said. “I mean, employers are dying to have these people come work for them.”

Many of the summer asylum seekers who stayed at the Expo are a month or two away from being able to work legally, and Catholic Charities opposes any attempt to harm asylum-seekers by delaying their work permits.

“If someone wants to go to work, and is going to have to wait even longer, absolutely upsetting,” Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services Director Hannah DeAngelis said. “You have less control over your life, and that’s really hard to handle when you’re already in a new country.”

In a statement, the acting head of U.S. Immigration Services said, “These reforms are designed to restore integrity to the asylum system, and lessen the incentive to file an application for the sole purpose of obtaining a work permit.”