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

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set news policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on

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.

Have you ever heard the tale of the Gordian knot?

For those who might not be familiar, it is a legend from antiquity. There was a knot so jumbled, snarled, and complex that no one could undo it. Supposedly, whoever untied it was destined to rule Asia.

Alexander of Macedonia rode into Gordium to conquer the challenge. He unsheathed his sword, dramatically cut the knot, and went on to conquer lands as far away as modern Pakistan.

While the story is apocryphal, it still serves as a great metaphor. In short, sometimes bold action is needed to confront a challenge.

Three and a half months ago, I argued that the state of Maine should lead on the issue of asylum seekers working.  If you want to be circumspect, you could create creative programs that provide resources to organizations that have large numbers of asylee volunteers. Those organizations could then provide food, shelter, and other benefits until the asylees are able to work.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board thought challenging federal law was a bit too far. Instead, they praised the message behind a bipartisan bill passed through the Maine Legislature and signed by Gov. Janet Mills that would request a “waiver” from the federal government regarding work restrictions.

Just one problem, as the editorial noted: Washington cannot grant a waiver.  

Meanwhile, Augusta has sent Portland $4.6 million to help fund a new shelter. Bills pending in Washington – including from Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen. Susan Collins – have had more press releases than votes. And Portland-area governments are offering Unity College nearly $8 million a year to house asylum seekers in their dorms.

By my count, we’ve passed one symbolic bill in Augusta, had zero progress in Washington, and are passing $12 million in new spending. And the work prohibitions remain.

The Maine Legislature is spending their days passing bills that completely change agricultural labor laws and create new entitlement programs that will cost hundreds of millions annually. They have hundreds of millions more in spending planned.

Whatever they want to do, they need money to do it. And that money comes from tax revenue, which comes from economic activity. Economic activity that asylum seekers can help create.

Someone needs to step up and cut the knot.

Mainers won one fight against the federal government last week. While Sen. Susan Collins used her gravitas to help get a law enacted that stopped federal regulators from ravaging the Maine lobster industry for many years, the fight continued in the courts.  

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with the Maine parties to the lawsuit as well, telling the Biden Administration that they are not allowed to make the most pessimistic assumptions about North Atlantic right whales without real data.

Another ongoing state-federal fight focuses on drugs. Cannabis remains federally illegal, yet one BDN headline noted “Maine is loosening marijuana laws on different fronts.” Lots of other drugs are prohibited, but legislative Democrats are flirting with authorizing places where people can use heroin legally.                  

Whatever the wisdom of those policies, they represent a willingness to challenge Washington directly. That’s healthy. Our system is built on the idea of multiple sovereigns – federal, state, and, for their peoples, tribal. There is tension built into the system.

When it comes to asylum seekers, that tension is a federal government prohibiting them from working while states are required to provide food and shelter. One good way to remove tension is with a good, sharp knife.

Someone should cut the knot. Maine should lead and get its asylum seekers to work.

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.