Cuban migrant Mario Perez holds his wife as they wait to be processed to seek asylum after crossing the border into the United States, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, near Yuma, Arizona. Credit: Gregory Bull / AP

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Allowing asylum seekers to work as their cases are heard is such a reasonable proposition that it is immensely frustrating that it hasn’t been implemented yet.

Under current law, those seeking asylum in the United States, cannot work for at least six months after they file their asylum petition. The Trump administration had counter productively extended the period during which asylum seekers could not work to a year, but that was struck down by a court last year.

The long wait to work forces these migrants to rely on help from communities and non-profit groups. It also keeps potential employees out of the U.S. workforce at a time when businesses report an ongoing shortage of workers. This doesn’t make sense.

That’s why we’ve supported legislation in recent years to change the rules. We are doing so again.

Sens. Susan Collins and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, have again introduced legislation to change the work rules. The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2023, which the senators introduced earlier this month, would allow individuals seeking asylum to be eligible for work authorizations starting 30 days after they apply for asylum. The authorization, which is renewable, would last for two years, rather than just one, as is currently the case. Sen. Angus King is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

There is, however, an addition to this year’s bill, which Collins and Sinema have sponsored since 2019. If it becomes law, this year’s bill would shorten the work authorization waiting period for new asylum seekers only if they enter the U.S. at ports of entry. It would grandfather asylum seekers already in the U.S., no matter how or where they entered the country. Those who did not enter at a port of entry would have to wait 180 days to apply for work authorization.

In a press release, the senators said this new requirement would lead to “a more orderly asylum application process.” This new restriction may also build support for the bill among senators who want stronger immigration restrictions.

“The policy forcing asylum seekers to wait at least six months, and oftentimes much longer, before working has always defied common sense,” Collins said in a statement sent to the BDN editorial board.

“First, by allowing asylum seekers and their families to support themselves more quickly as they want to do, our bill would provide relief for employers who are desperately looking to fill job openings and reduce the unsustainable level of social services expenditures for communities like Portland,” she added. “Second, by requiring asylum seekers to use official ports of entry to be eligible for an expedited work permit, our bill would help create a more orderly asylum application process.”

“By every measure, this commonsense legislation is a win-win for the asylum seekers and their families as well as for businesses and the host communities. It would represent a much-needed improvement over the status quo,” Collins said.

“This extended waiting period is holding back Maine’s full economic potential,” King said in a press release. “It prevents asylum seekers from earning a paycheck, pointlessly shrinks the worker pool for businesses in need of employees, and increases the financial burden on local governments. … With Maine facing serious workforce challenges, now is the time to shorten the waiting period for asylum seekers who just want to contribute, work hard, and put food on their table.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree has sponsored similar legislation in the U.S. House for several years. She intends to introduce a bill again this year, but it won’t include language about where those seeking asylum and work authorization should cross the border.

“Why should skilled workers be denied the means to support themselves because of an arbitrary waiting period? Why should businesses continue to struggle to hire workers because of an ineffective system?” Pingree wrote in a column published by the BDN last year.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration officially unveiled a controversial new policy that would bar people from seeking asylum in the U.S. if they entered the country illegally. This change deserves rigorous debate, but the work permit issue should be quickly resolved.

Allowing asylum seekers to apply to work more quickly won’t fix the other significant problems with America’s immigration system. But, it is a long overdue change that will offer some relief to those seeking asylum, their communities and employers that are still struggling to find enough workers.

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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...