The status quo makes little sense for asylum seekers desperate to find work and support themselves.
In this April 10, 2023, file photo, asylum-seekers are given instructions upon arriving at the Portland Expo Center in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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We’ll keep saying it until Congress does it: Let asylum seekers work faster.

The status quo, which prevents asylum seekers in Maine and across the country from working for at least the first six months after they file their asylum petition, is bad both for these people arriving in the U.S. and for the communities they are joining. It prevents them from quickly using their skills to make their way in their new home, all but assures that they will require government and charitable assistance, and arbitrarily cuts local employers off from potential workers amid lingering workforce challenges.

In short, the status quo makes little sense. As the now-retired president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Dana Connors, said last summer, speeding up the process to allow these new arrivals to work faster is a “no-brainer.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has backed this much needed change as well, offering its support for a pair of bills from members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has introduced the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District has introduced a similarly titled bill in the House of Representatives. U.S. Sen. Angus King is also a co-sponsor of Collins’ bill, and collectively members of the Maine delegation have been working on this issue for several years. The U.S. chamber supports both of these similar, but not exactly the same, pieces of legislation.

“We commend the work of members of Congress from both parties that have put forth bipartisan, common-sense solutions,” the chamber said in a recent letter to Congress. “We believe these bills would achieve important progress toward addressing our nation’s immigration and border security challenges.”

This proposed change has been needed for some time, but that need has become even more obvious with more than 1,000 asylum seekers arriving in Maine this year and having to wait months to be able to work. Municipalities, especially Portland, have faced challenges providing housing to these new Mainers, some of whom have raised concerns about those housing conditions and options moving forward.

“My bipartisan bill is a commonsense solution that gives asylum seekers an opportunity to live a safe, fulfilling life while giving our economy the boost it so desperately needs,” Pingree said in a July 20 press release that highlighted the Chamber of Commerce support. “It’s my hope that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement will spark immediate action among my colleagues to take up this important bill. Our communities, local governments, small businesses, and new neighbors are counting on us.”

Earlier this year, Collins pressed the Biden administration about working together to change current law.

“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 U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during an appropriations subcommittee hearing in March. “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.”

This point from Collins was spot on in March, and it remains so today. This is why Maine leaders have united across political lines in calling for such a change, why business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and immigration advocates agree it can be good for asylum seekers  and employers alike, and why the rest of Congress needs to get its act together and make this update without further delay.

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...