Sen. Angus King announced Friday that he has submitted federal legislation that could reduce the amount of public assistance communities such as Portland provide to asylum-seeking immigrants while they are barred from working.

Standing on the steps of Portland City Hall, where officials have wrestled with the issue for months, King said his legislation would reduce the amount of time asylum-seeking immigrants are barred from working under federal law to 30 days. They now have to wait 150 days after applying for asylum before they can apply for work permits, which take at least another month to process.

“We are, we have been, and we always will be a nation of immigrants,” King said in a prepared statement. “In Maine, we’ve welcomed asylum seekers and our communities are stronger for it. But today, federal law prevents them from even trying to get a job to support themselves and their families, and that just doesn’t make sense.”

New data released by city officials Friday show that the waiting period isn’t the only obstacle to integrating immigrants into the workforce. Nearly 150 asylum seekers relying on aid in Portland are eligible for federal work permits but have not yet applied, according to the city manager. The city may require those asylum seekers to pursue work permits within 60 days to remain eligible for aid.

A ‘DEMOGRAPHIC TIME BOMB’

Surrounded by immigrants, elected officials and business representatives, King said that allowing asylum seekers to work sooner would help solve a “demographic time bomb” facing Maine because of a shortage of highly skilled workers and a steady drop in school enrollment, from nearly 220,000 in 1995 to 185,000 in 2014. Changing the law also would reduce state and local welfare costs, he said.

“This isn’t simply humanitarian – though that’s an important part of it – it’s economic survival for this state,” King said. “If we don’t have additional people from around the country or around the world, we are not going to be able to compete or sustain our economy.”

The federal requirement that asylum seekers wait at least six months before they work was adopted in 1996 as a way to reduce the number of false asylum claims that were being filed simply so people could work in the country while they waited for asylum rulings.

King said that there is less potential for such abuses today, and that people who file frivolous claims will be deported.

“We have better technology to keep track of people,” King said. “That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

Advocates argue that asylum seekers are typically highly educated, motivated people who would much rather work than rely on public assistance.

Most asylum seekers in Portland entered the country legally on visitor visas, which are good for six months, or student visas, which are valid for varying periods of time. Once here, they have one year to apply for asylum, provided they have a valid fear of political persecution or violence if they return home.

Most of the asylum seekers in Portland come from troubled African nations.

Philemon Duchimire escaped political persecution in 2010 in the Central African nation of Burundi, where he earned a law degree and worked in the judicial branch of government. The federal work prohibition made it difficult for him to provide for himself and his family after they arrived in the United States, and they had to rely on General Assistance.

He found work shortly after getting his work authorization.

“If you were able to fix current law so I could have worked earlier, I would not have needed General Assistance and I would have been able to advance my career earlier,” said Duchimire, who works 80 hours a week and plans to attend the University of Southern Maine in the fall.

NEARLY HALF HAVE COLLEGE DEGREES

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said that nearly half of all asylum seekers have college degrees when they come to the U.S., compared with state average of 28 percent and the national average of 30 percent. Meanwhile, businesses constantly talk about the need for more skilled workers, but the federal law diverts asylum seekers into the city’s workfare program, rather than allowing them to address that shortage.

“That’s such an underutilization of human potential,” Brennan said.

Chris Hall, the president and chief operating officer of the Portland Community Chamber, said the shortage of skilled workers is increasingly urgent. It makes no sense to prevent people who could fill those jobs from working, he said.

Asylum seekers are considered lawfully present but are not eligible for most forms of federal aid and have been deemed ineligible for state General Assistance funds by the LePage administration, which often refers to asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens.”

Last year, Portland spent an estimated $5 million on aid for asylum seekers that was not reimbursed by the state. This year, the city has established a one-time, $2.6 million fund to continue providing some assistance to about 564 asylum seekers. That fund was capitalized with $1.7 million in additional state education aid – move that LePage has said he will challenge.

The fund is expected to fall $1.5 million short of meeting the need, so city staff is recommending that the program focus on housing. Even then, the fund is projected to fall nearly $500,000 short of what will be needed.

The City Council is scheduled to adopt rules for the program on Monday. The city staff is recommending a rule requiring the 146 asylum seekers who are eligible for federal work permits, but haven’t applied, to do so within 60 days to remain eligible for assistance, City Manager Jon Jennings said.

The staff also is recommending that the more than 100 asylum seekers with work permits who are unemployed be dropped from the program after six months, although they could file an appeal, Jennings said, noting that the city would partner with the community to improve English language and resume building skills.

Jennings said the rules are designed to move asylum seekers off of welfare and into the workforce.

King said he is hopeful that federal lawmakers will be able to support his proposed change to the asylum process, even though comprehensive immigration reform efforts have stalled in Congress.

“Sometimes when we try to solve all of the problems at once, we end up solving none of them,” King said. “I think this is one problem that’s crying out to be solved.”

This story was updated at 8:45 p.m., Aug. 1 to reflect an error in the number of days asylum seekers have to apply for federal work permits.