Alberto Claudio Konde, right, and Sebastian Mateus Miguel, asylum seekers from Angola, attend a picnic for refugees Thursday, July 4, 2019, at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Sometimes, the government spends decades evolving the worst possible solution to a given problem.

Exhibit A is immigration.

Portland has been crying out for help dealing with a substantial influx of asylum seekers. Augusta has said that they have government funds – tax dollars – available for assistance.  

Public and private employers alike have countless job openings, all while paying taxes that fund these benefit programs. Washington allows asylees to come here but prohibits them from working.

It is hard to imagine a worse system.  

There are legitimate debates surrounding immigration policy. Some think that we are too generous with in-migration, while  others believe borders should be wide open. I’m in the “tall walls, wide gates” camp; it should be easy to come here legally. There should be real repercussions for violating the law. And new immigrants should be welcomed and assimilated.  

But once you’re here, you’ve got to go to work.

A century ago, that was the expectation of immigrants. They didn’t need lawyers to deal with an alphabet soup of visas, but they also did not expect to receive public assistance. Whether it was young Italians building Maine’s infrastructure or Lebanese mill workers, those “new Mainers” put their hands to work.

Most asylum seekers today would be happy to follow the same path. The problem lies in Washington. With a bit of gumption, the solution may lie here.

Former Gov. Paul LePage argued on the campaign trail that Maine should let these asylees work. He was ridiculed because it is plainly against federal law. They are both right.

Cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. That has not stopped Maine from forging ahead with – and taxing – the legal use of marijuana throughout the state. Plenty of other states have done the same and there seems to be a tacit retreat from Washington on enforcing that particular federal law.

With lobstering regulations, Maine has struck back against federal overreach. Lawsuits were filed. Funds are proposed to be committed. Some legislators have called for asserting sovereignty out 12 miles from the Maine coastline. In short, Augusta is fighting against Washington.

The same could be done with asylum seekers. It won’t be in the private sector; unlike cannabis, Washington or interest groups might bring the hammer down on businesses who dare to let asylees work.  

But the state has more flexibility.  

There are hundreds of open jobs in government throughout our state. Asylees probably cannot help with police or skilled nursing positions in the short run. But jobs in maintenance, groundskeeping, and other public works could be helped with some effort from new Mainers.  

Some creative lawyering could enable these individuals to “volunteer” for their newly adopted home as public funds are deployed on their behalf. Is it walking a fine line? Yes. Will Washington decide to fight with Augusta? Maybe.

Yet it is a fight worth having. Whether or not you agree with having more asylees resettled in Maine, I do not believe anyone finds logic in preventing them from working. How many issues can really bring together Paul LePage and Chellie Pingree?

Washington has failed miserably in its responsibility to manage our immigration system. By sending asylees to Maine, requiring – at least morally – the expenditure of public funds to help provide for them, while simultaneously prohibiting them from working to care for themselves is an abdication.  

As we have with cannabis and lobstering, Maine should step forward once more into the breach and openly challenge the federal government’s failings. It won’t be simple and it comes with risk. But if our motto – “Dirigo,” “I lead” – is to mean anything, it is something that should be done.  

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.