In this June 13, 2019 photo, Prince Pombo speaks about his family's journey as migrants from Africa, at the Portland Exposition Building in Portland, Maine. With him is his wife, Thaiz Neri and their daughter, Heaven. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / BDN

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We won’t stop talking about the clear need to shorten the period of time that asylum seekers have to wait before they can work. Not until the law is changed. And we’re glad that Maine policymakers won’t stop talking about it, either.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins recently questioned U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about the current law, which prevents those seeking asylum from working for at least six months after they file their asylum petition. She secured a somewhat vague but nevertheless important commitment from Mayorkas to work with her on a proposed change.

“Why couldn’t we change the law and have a win-win situation here? The asylum seekers are eager to work and support themselves and their families,” Collins asked. “The employers in my state are desperate for more workers. And it would also benefit the municipalities that are under increasing strain as they’re supporting thousands of asylum seekers.”

Collins outlined how hundreds of asylum seekers have arrived in Portland since January and are unable to work, as Maine businesses are having trouble finding workers. And she asked Mayorkas if he would support a bill she has introduced that would make these new arrivals eligible for work authorization 30 days after filing their asylum applications. Independent Sen. Angus King is also a cosponsor of that bill, and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree has been working on a  similar proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives for several years.

“I very much look forward to working with you on that bill,” Mayorkas told Collins during a March 29 appropriations subcommittee hearing. “You and I have spoken before about the great misfortune of having employers throughout the United States that depend on additional workers, seasonal or otherwise, and yet our fundamentally broken immigration system cannot meet that need.”

Yes, America needs comprehensive immigration reform to fix a broken system, but Congress and the Biden Administration must not wait for agreement on broad systemic change (they could be waiting a while) before making this specific and obvious change. They should shorten the work waiting period for asylum seekers, and shorten it now. With the Portland Expo once again being used as temporary housing for asylum seekers, new Mainers and their new communities shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

This idea of shortening the waiting period, despite a counter-productive move by the Trump administration to try to increase it, has made sense for a long time. It made sense when King proposed it back in 2015. And it makes sense now, to officials across the political spectrum.

At the state level, there is strong bipartisan support for a bill introduced by Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey that would direct the Maine commissioner of labor to request a waiver from the federal government to allow asylum seekers to work as soon as they have applied for asylum. Nick Murray from the conservative Maine Policy Center called the existing rules “nonsensical” in his testimony supporting that proposal. Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross is a co-sponsor of the bill, which faces dim prospects without a federal law change, because the law currently does not allow for such waivers.

Ninette Irabaruta, the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at United Way of Southern Maine, provided powerful testimony in support of the state bill. Irabaruta came to Maine in 2012 as an asylum seeker.

“I would not be here today if I didn’t believe in the power of a second chance. Most of the asylees who come here want to work and start providing for themselves and their families right away, while also minimizing the burden that is weighing on local municipalities,” Irabaruta told lawmakers. “This is a win-win for the Maine economy. We know that there is a huge workforce shortage in our state, and we have a unique opportunity to use the needed skills asylum seekers bring into the cities and towns where they settle.”

Win-win situations seem to be rare in politics today. But resolving this issue would be one of them. It would be a win for people fleeing persecution around the globe who want to provide for themselves and their families here in their new home. It would be a win for Maine businesses who desperately need workers. It would also be a win for taxpayers and municipalities who are providing services to new Mainers in the meantime. In that sense, this could even be a win-win-win.

Congress and the Biden administration should take the wins and shorten this wait period without any further delay. Hopefully Secretary Mayorkas’ response to Collins represents a step forward in that effort.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...