William Cohen says the 2nd District's voters should back Jared Golden for a third term.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's 2nd District on Oct. 12, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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A mix of old and new issues is making immigration a bigger issue than it normally is in Maine, underlined by a week in which dozens of asylum seekers went from Greater Portland to Sanford, a city unprepared for their arrival.

Pandemic-era asylum restrictions ended this week, although President Joe Biden instituted new rules aimed at countervailing the expiration by getting asylum seekers to stop coming illegally across the border and registering online before coming here. Those who cross the border are now subject to strict penalties, but more could try to come as a result of the shift.

Congress is fighting over this right now. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden — a Democrat from the 2nd District who sits more or less in the middle of divided government in Washington —  said Thursday that he thinks there is room for compromise on this massively complicated issue fraught with policy problems at all levels of government.

The context: While asylum seekers may have come across the border illegally, they can legally remain in the country while awaiting immigration proceedings. They have to wait at least 180 days for a work permit under federal law, something politicians of all stripes here oppose, from former Gov. Paul LePage to progressive Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District.

Each member of Maine’s congressional delegation supports loosening those rules, as do most members of the Legislature. The action right now in Congress is around both that and the Title 42 pandemic restrictions that expired this week and were based on a 1944 law aimed at protecting public health.

House Republicans passed a bill Thursday that Democrats, including Golden, opposed largely by saying it was too harsh on minors. It will not pass the Democratic-led Senate.

Bills, bills, bills: The Maine congressman has also opposed winding down Title 42 since last year and introduced a bipartisan measure on Thursday that would extend the powers for another two years. It is a companion measure to a bill in the Senate from Republican Thom Tillis of South Carolina and independent Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

It is intended to give Biden more time to plan. Golden called it a far more realistic alternative to the Republican measure.

“They know it’s not going to be able to pass the Senate,” he said of House Republicans, “but a bill like mine could and so couldn’t a number of other bills.”

Among those other proposals on the subject is a forthcoming bill from U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, on temporary work visas that Golden said he’s likely to sign on to. Pingree also has an active measure that would allow asylum seekers to work sooner, as does U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

What’s next: Whether any of these items can pass in a divided Congress is another question. The government has been paralyzed on the issue over the last decade or so in search of a comprehensive solution.

Republicans are already hammering Golden for opposing their measure ahead of yet another targeted campaign aimed at the swing-district congressman’s seat, underlining the political issues afoot.

But Golden thinks passing piecemeal fixes while adding border security funding could gain momentum after it becomes crystal clear that strictly partisan bills are not going to move.

“Running one-off bills, I actually think, is a strategy that’s emerging in Congress to say, ‘We need to get anything done we can that’s going to help,'” he said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...