Sen. Angus King of Maine plans to submit federal legislation to ease work restrictions on asylum seekers and reduce the need for the kind of assistance that Portland is struggling to provide to hundreds of immigrants living in the city.

King, an independent, tried to address the work authorization delays for asylum applicants in 2013 as part of an unsuccessful attempt by Congress to overhaul the immigration system. He plans to come to Portland City Hall on Friday to announce new legislation that would cut asylum seekers’ work authorization waiting period from 150 days to 30 days.

“Sen. King believes it’s time that we re-examine our immigration laws and find a way to allow asylum seekers to support themselves like they want to do, and his bill is a first step in that direction,” King spokesman Scott Ogden said in a written statement Wednesday.

Advocates for immigration reform support the push to change federal law, but doubt such legislation will go far in Congress, where immigration is a divisive issue.

“There’s a bit of a stalemate when it comes to immigration reform and reform of the asylum system,” said Bill Frelick, the refugee program manager for Human Rights Watch.

Despite the long odds, any federal legislation that addresses the nation’s broken immigration system is worth fighting for, said Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners.


“We see this as an important piece to the solution,” Merrill said. “If an opportunity presented itself. It’s certainly possible people could come together. It doesn’t make sense to prevent them from working. I think there’s consensus around that.”

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce is expected to appear with King on Friday to support the effort.

The Maine AFL-CIO doesn’t have a position for or against a change in the work waiting period, spokeswoman Sarah Bigney said.

The asylum process has been a contentious issue in Maine since Gov. Paul LePage eliminated asylum seekers and “undocumented immigrants” from the state General Assistance rolls last June. Until then, asylum seekers were eligible to receive state General Assistance vouchers for rent and other basic needs until they received their federal work authorization documents, which takes at least six months because immigrants can’t begin the 150-day work authorization process until 30 days after they have filed for asylum.

LePage’s move had a significant impact in Portland, where the policy change affected at least 779 immigrants. The city, in effect, has been left to decide whether to spend local taxpayers’ money on continued aid or cut the asylum seekers off from what might be their only means of support.

Last year, Portland spent roughly $5 million on asylum seekers and did not receive a state reimbursement. This year, the city has established a one-time, $2.6 million fund to continue some assistance, even while some hope that legal disputes at the state level lead to a resumption of state funding.


The current asylum process for immigrants who are seeking permanent refuge from war-torn lands and political persecution leaves applicants in limbo.

Portland’s asylum seekers typically came to the United States with visitor visas, which are good for six months, or student visas, which last for varying amounts of time. They have one year to apply for asylum, which would allow them to stay in the U.S. if they show credible fear of violence or political persecution back home. Once they file for asylum, they are considered lawfully present and are protected from deportation until they receive a ruling.

The six-month wait for work authorization was adopted in 1996 as a way to ease the backlog of asylum cases and to address perceived abuses in which immigrants could file false asylum claims and work in the U.S. until their asylum was denied. Before the 1996 law, immigrants could work soon after filing their application.


Meanwhile, asylum seekers have been ineligible for most forms of public assistance at the federal level and, in Maine, have been declared ineligible for General Assistance at the state level.

The combination of the waiting period for work permits and the lack of state and federal aid has put the burden of supporting applicants on cities such as Portland.


“Unfortunately, it’s a huge problem,” said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which helps immigrants apply for asylum in Maine. “I don’t think I have met any clients who weren’t interested in working as soon as they can.”

A number of local asylum seekers have said they would rather work than rely on aid.

Suavis Furaha, of Burundi, has fought the governor’s efforts to cut people like her from the General Assistance rolls. Last month, she told Portland’s City Council that, shortly after getting her federal work permit, she landed two jobs and worked 60 hours a week. She said she was no longer receiving public assistance.

“General Assistance was very helpful for me and laid the foundation for me to enter the workforce and be a contributing member of the community,” Furaha said.


Portland officials cannot provide information about how long asylum seekers receive assistance, compared with other groups, because they did not previously track immigration status. Until last year, assistance was provided solely on financial need.


Human Rights Watch says the United States is the only country among 44 developed nations with procedures that prohibit asylum seekers from both working and receiving governmental assistance.

The European Union provides public benefits for asylum seekers until they are authorized to work, and Canada allows asylum seekers who lawfully enter the country to work after an initial screening, according to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “At Least Let Them Work.”

Comprehensive federal immigration reform was last discussed in 2013. The Democrat-controlled Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act to reform both the refugee and asylum process. However, that bill didn’t address the work authorization issue.

King unsuccessfully tried to amend the legislation to allow asylum seekers to seek work authorization while filing for asylum. That didn’t matter, however, since the bill died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Last November, President Obama issued an executive order instituting immigration reforms, but those actions sought to refocus immigration enforcement efforts on felons, not families, and didn’t address asylum seekers. That order was subsequently put on hold by a federal judge.

Prospects for comprehensive immigration reform coming out of Congress have remained dim ever since.


“I don’t see anything happening through the presidential elections and a new Congress being voted in,” said Frelick, of Human Rights Watch.

Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a written statement Wednesday that Congress should address the work rules for asylum seekers.

“All you have to do is look around Portland and you can see how badly we need immigration reform,” the Democrat said. “We have hundreds of asylum seekers who have fled dangerous situations in their own countries, are here legally and are perfectly willing to work. But they end up in limbo – sometimes for far more than 180 days – and that puts them in a very difficult situation.”


Sen. Susan Collins believes the asylum procedure needs to be reformed to improve security and speed up the process.

“I have previously offered two amendments designed to lessen those flaws by giving asylum officers the tools they need to dismiss frivolous claims, and to ensure that any derogatory information about applicants who may wish to do us harm is reviewed during the application process,” the Republican said in an email. “These changes would not only enhance our security, but would also help speed up the review process to allow asylum seekers to obtain work authorizations more quickly.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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