In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, Thierry Malasa pauses while describing the harrowing journey that led his family from the Congo to Maine, as the family prepared to move out of the Portland Expo, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Employers across the country and in Maine report a shortage of workers. Meanwhile a group of people newly in America wants to work and can’t.

There’s a relatively simple fix that can help ease the problem a bit: Let those seeking asylum in the U.S. begin work much more quickly.

Because of a misguided Trump-era policy, asylum seekers must now wait a year before they can apply for work authorization. Previously, the waiting time was 150 days. Both timelines needlessly keep these new arrivals in the U.S., many of whom have skills, from working here and keeps them reliant on government and charitable help.

Last week, Rep. Chellie Pingree reintroduced legislation to reduce the waiting period to 30 days.

“In the past few months, more than 700 migrants have sought refuge in Maine — uprooting their lives in hopes of safety and opportunity. We have welcomed them with open arms,” Pingree said in a statement last week. “At the same time, businesses have tried to recruit new arrivals in Maine, but because of outdated and misguided policies, these jobs are left unfilled. Why should skilled workers be denied the means to support themselves and be integrated into their new community because of an arbitrary waiting period?”

Why indeed.

Portland, where most asylum seekers in Maine arrive, is struggling to temporarily house the hundreds of asylum seekers, most from Africa, who continue to arrive in Maine’s largest city.

As of late January, the city has been providing temporary shelter each night to more than 1,100 recent arrivals. They have been staying in 10 hotels in five nearby communities and in the city’s two shelters.

The cost of this housing, which the city estimates could rise to $30 million a year, is currently covered by federal and state reimbursements. Local nonprofits and charitable organizations offer much of the support beyond temporary housing.

Meanwhile, hundreds of jobs in Maine are going unfilled.

We supported speeding up the work authorization process for asylum seekers in 2019, when Pingree first introduced her bill. At that time, asylum seekers had to wait 150 days to apply for work authorization.

Rather than shorten the time, the Department of Homeland Security in 2020 changed its rules to increase the work authorization wait time to a full year.

This move was counterproductive, not only by keeping potential labor out of the workforce, but by preventing asylum seekers from making their own way rather than turning to public assistance. Those who apply for asylum are seeking protection from persecution based on their religion, nationality, ethnic group, or political or social affiliation. They must be in the U.S. to file a petition for asylum here. Asylum cases typically take at least six months, but can last years.

Sen. Susan Collins also introduced legislation in 2019 to shorten the work authorization waiting period to 30 days. She is preparing to do so again this year.

“The law currently prohibits asylum seekers from working for extended periods of time, which prevents them from supporting themselves and their families as they want to do. It also inadvertently places the burden of care on states and municipalities,” Collins said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News editorial board.

“I am working to reintroduce this commonsense bill, which would help cities like Portland and their partners in the nonprofit community that are currently caring for a large number of asylum seekers,” she added.

Sen. Angus King, who introduced a bill to shorten the asylum seeker work authorization period in 2015, will co-sponsor this legislation.

“This extended waiting period prevents asylum seekers from earning a paycheck, limits the worker pool for businesses desperately seeking employees, and increases the burden on municipal governments. With the economic recovery story in full swing, Sen. King will be cosponsoring legislation to shorten the waiting period for asylum seekers who are looking for employment opportunities,” the senator’s spokesperson Matthew Felling told the BDN editorial board.

These bills warrant strong support in Congress.

International immigrants, including asylum seekers, are not going to solve Maine’s workforce and demographic challenges alone. But they can be part of the in-migration puzzle if they are allowed to work more quickly.

Avatar photo

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...