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The federal prohibition against asylum seekers from working for at least six months is ludicrous and counterproductive. As we’ve written before, the federal rules force those seeking refuge in the U.S. to rely on government and charitable help, at a time when employers are desperate for workers.
Clearly, the system needs to change.
Which is why a bill, backed by Maine lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum, is significant.
Although what the bill seeks to accomplish — obtaining a waiver from the federal law — does not look feasible, the legislation sends a strong message that the system is a failure and needs to change.
Under current law, those seeking asylum in the United States cannot work for at least six months after they file their asylum petition.
Republicans, including former Gov. Paul LePage and Bangor Daily News columnist Mike Cianchette, have suggested that Maine should ignore the federal law and allow asylum seekers to work more quickly. We understand their frustration, but breaking federal law is not the solution.
That’s why LD 1050 is a welcome push. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, a libertarian Republican from Auburn. It is co-sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Republican leaders Sen. Trey Stewart and Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, and Democratic Rep. Deqa Dhalac of South Portland, the first Somali-American mayor in the country and one of the first two Somali-Americans to serve in the Maine Legislature. The bill has the backing of the conservative Maine Policy Center and the more left-leaning Maine Education Association.
But officials from the Maine Department of Labor and Maine Business Immigrant Coalition told lawmakers on Tuesday that the federal law does not include provisions for waivers.
“Some have questioned whether the federal government will even accept a request for waiver of the work prohibition,” Brakey testified Tuesday. “I say send the request anyway … The more states demonstrate demand for waivers, the more it raises the issue in Congress.”
We agree. While we are often skeptical of so-called messaging bills, this legislation has an important message to send: Federal immigration law must change to allow those who are already in the U.S. awaiting decisions on their asylum application to go to work quickly. This will help them, their families, Maine businesses and the communities hosting them.
Last month, officials in Portland, where most asylum seekers first stay when they arrive in Maine, said the city was struggling to meet the needs of the new arrivals. More than 550 asylum seekers had arrived in Maine between the start of the year and the end of February.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree have introduced federal legislation to change the work rules for asylum seekers. Both of their bills would allow these new arrivals to be eligible for work authorization 30 days after filing their asylum applications. U.S. Sen. Angus King is a co-sponsor of Collins’ bill.
Efforts like LD 1050, which the Maine Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee overwhelmingly supported Tuesday, build support for a federal law change.
“I’m glad that the Maine Legislature is looking for innovative, bipartisan solutions to this challenge,” Pingree said in a statement to the BDN editorial board. “While no federal waiver currently exists to allow new arrivals to work, that’s not a reason for state leaders to stop striving toward a solution.”
“I’m working to pass my Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which would finally change this burdensome federal law, but I believe that every avenue should be explored,” she added.
Federal immigration laws need a major overhaul, which Congress has failed to do for decades. Allowing those seeking asylum to be given work authorization sooner is a tiny piece of this larger work. But it is one that can and should be addressed easily and quickly.
Exploring every avenue to do so, while continuing to build broad support for a federal fix, makes sense.