Asylum-seekers are given instructions upon arriving at the Portland Expo Center, Monday, April 10, 2023, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Gov. Janet Mills has signed a bipartisan bill that directs the Maine Commissioner of Labor to ask the federal government for a waiver that would let asylum seekers work faster while their asylum petitions are processed. The lack of such a waiver process in federal law essentially makes this a messaging bill.

But it remains an important message.

As Nick Murray from the conservative Maine Policy Institute described to state lawmakers in March, the existing rules, which prevent asylum seekers from working for at least six months after they file their asylum petition, are “nonsensical.” That’s the right word.

The bill signed by Mills on May 11, which was led by Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey, seeks to allow asylum seekers to work as soon as they have applied for asylum.

“Newcomers arriving into our state immigrate to this country fleeing from persecution and violence, and in search of work and means to provide for their families,” Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, one of the bill’s sponsors, also testified in March. “As a rule, we should always be trying to help those trying to put food on the table for their folks, and we should always look out for the businesses run by our constituents here in Maine, in this case helping them with their labor shortages.”

Even some who did not testify in support of the bill nevertheless supported its intent. Joby Thoyalil of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition highlighted the lack of such a waiver process in federal immigration law while testifying neither for nor against the legislation.

“We know that immigrants are part of the solution to Maine’s short- and long-term workforce shortages. Most people seeking asylum bring education, skills, and expertise with them and are able and eager to work,” Thoyalil said in March. “Unfortunately they must wait for at least six months before they are federally authorized to do so. For this reason, we very much support the intent behind LD 1050, but we cannot support it due to the fact that federal immigration law does not allow for the type of waiver for which this resolve calls.”

The message of this resolve, now signed into state law, is good. Action, however, must ultimately come from Congress and the Biden Administration for that message to be reflected in federal law. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree have been working on pieces of legislation that would shorten the work wait period for asylum seekers, and it is past time that the rest of Congress get on board with this sensible change and get it across the finish line.

America needs comprehensive immigration reform, and reaching such an agreement has proven to be drawn-out and illusive. Allowing asylum seekers to work sooner, however, should be a quick and easily agreed upon fix. It would allow these new arrivals to support themselves and their families sooner, and it would help businesses who are desperate for workers.

More than 1,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Maine this year. It’s only May, so given the six-month waiting period, that means none of these folks are allowed to work yet. That doesn’t make sense for them and their families, and it doesn’t make sense for the Maine economy or Maine taxpayers.

This ability to work quicker, of course, is just one piece of a complicated puzzle. For example, shelter spaces in Portland, including the use of the Portland Expo as temporary housing for asylum seekers, have been  at capacity. Quicker asylum seeker work authorization doesn’t solve Maine’s overall challenges of housing availability and affordability. It does, however, present an initial win-win that helps new arrivals, businesses and Maine communities at the same time.


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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...