American government has become an exercise in buck passing. Problems that were once considered federal issues have been dumped on the states, and whenever they can states are willing to dump those problems onto the local level.

The prime example is immigration policy, a federal issue if there ever was one. Because Congress is paralyzed by extreme anti-immigration ideologues, and the LePage administration is eager to blame “illegal” immigrants for all of the state’s problems, cities like Portland are now struggling to balance their budgets while continuing to serve people in need.

On Friday, Sen. Angus King was in Portland to attempt to put the responsibility back where it has always belonged, with the federal government.

King is sponsoring legislation that would reduce the amount of time that an applicant for political asylum has to wait for a work permit from six months to 30 days. Lifting that limit could save the city millions every year which would have otherwise been distributed through General Assistance

LONG DEBATE

The aid has been the dominant political issue in Maine for the last year, despite many more serious problems. It has been argued in the State House, City Hall and in courtrooms, sowing conflict between immigrants and native born residents, but not achieving any meaningful resolution, in part because immigration is ultimately controlled by federal law.

Potential asylees are allowed to come to America on a tourist or student visa, and apply for permission to stay.

In order to get asylum, they need to prove to a judge that they would face persecution in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality or political views. Its a high bar, and a process that take time.

During that period, these applicants are not eligible for most federal assistance, leaving states and cities with the choice of digging into taxpayer pockets or letting families go hungry and homeless.

The LePage administration has chosen the latter option, and although a bill that would permit asylum seekers to receive state aid appears to have become law as a result of the governor’s mismanagement of the veto calendar, it could be overturned by a citizen initiated referendum campaign.

In the meantime, Portland and Lewiston have committed to use local tax money to continue the aid, at least for a while.

King’s bill would not solve the problem completely, but it would make a huge difference for the communities.

WANT TO WORK

The experience of asylum seekers in Maine cities has been that they are eager to work, and most would much prefer having a job (or two jobs) than collect aid.

Even those with limited English language skills can readily find work cleaning offices, hotel rooms or caring for people in their homes while waiting for their day in court. Many come to America having already graduated from high school or college in their home countries and have marketable skills to apply here.

The best way to deal with their problem would be through a comprehensive reform of immigration laws which would streamline the process, shorten the wait for legal immigration and clarify the status of millions who are stuck in legal limbo.

But that kind of reform may be too much to ask in this political environment. King’s idea, which tackles just a small part of the larger problem, may be the best way forward.

We support King’s idea, and we hope his colleagues in Congress will agree.