A  new rule being proposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would make immigrants applying for asylum wait twice as long before they can apply for permission to work.

The rule proposal, to be published Thursday in the Federal Register, would lengthen the waiting period for a work permit application from a minimum of 150 days to 365 days for those who enter the U.S. illegally to seek asylum. The previous rule allowed asylum-seeking immigrants to begin working as soon as 180 days after submitting an application, while their cases were being processed by the federal courts.

Any individual may apply for asylum based on a credible fear of harm or persecution in their home country, whether they entered with a visa or by sneaking across a border.

The proposed change will require asylum-seeking immigrants to wait at least 365 days from the date of asylum application before they can apply for an “employment authorization document.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, has proposed legislation that would shorten the waiting period to just 30 days. Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, also has pushed for easing work restrictions on asylum seekers.

The shift will be subject to a public hearing period before going into effect, but it could have a significant impact on a recent wave of  hundreds of asylum-seeking immigrants that flooded into Portland over the last year. The vast majority of those migrants arrived without visas and asked for asylum at the southern U.S. border, sometimes after crossing the Rio Grande when border crossings were restricted.

The proposal also could make it more costly for cities like Portland to host and support asylum-seeking immigrants while they wait for permission to work.

Once a noncitizen says he or she is seeking asylum, no matter how they got into the U.S., that person is considered to be legally present and is not at risk of deportation. However, they are not allowed to work for a period of time, a provision added to federal law to eliminate an incentive for people to ask for asylum even if they have no valid claim.

The waiting period for work permits means newly arrived asylum seekers have no means to support themselves, which is why families rely on public support such as the shelter and other aid provided by Portland taxpayers. Families of asylum seekers have relied on city shelters for an average of four or five months, Portland officials say.

Asylum seekers are different from refugees, who are supported by the federal government and allowed to seek jobs when they arrive.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Homeland Security, said in a written statement that his agency was proposing the change to keep illegal immigrants from “gaming the system.”

He said the current system was causing “delays for legitimate asylum seekers in need of humanitarian protection.”

“These proposed reforms are designed to restore integrity to the asylum system and lessen the incentive to file an asylum application for the primary purpose of obtaining work authorization,” Cuccinelli said.

But Pingree said the proposed rule would hurt Maine by preventing asylum seekers who are here now from going to work, which will leave them more dependent on support programs funded by state and local taxpayers.

Pingree also highlighted the negative impact the rule would have on a Maine labor market which is is so tight that businesses can’t find workers, prompting some of them to close.

“We have a great need for people to fill many of the jobs that are going unfilled,” Pingree said. “Virtually all of the asylum-seekers are anxious to get to work, it’s the one thing we probably have here more than anything else.”

She described the Trump administration proposal as “mean-spirited” and in the “wrong direction,” noting that making asylum seekers wait longer before they can apply for work permits fuels the stereotype that immigrants are coming to Maine for welfare only.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also criticized the Trump administration proposal, her spokeswoman said.

“Maine is confronting a tight labor market and the key to solving it is engaging all skilled and work-ready adults, including immigrants, to ensure they are able to join our workforce and contribute to our economy,” Mills’ spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said.

“This proposed rule will make it more difficult for Maine businesses to hire the people they so badly need and hamper – not help – Maine’s ability to solve our workforce issues,” Crete wrote in an email.

The editor in chief of Amjambo Africa!, a newspaper for and about immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, said many of the recent immigrants are ready and willing to help Maine ease its labor shortage.

“Many newcomers arrive with advanced degrees and years of professional experience – just what Maine needs right now,” said Kathreen Harrison. “And they are the cream of the crop – the ones with the skills and courage to get their families out of harm’s way, and bring them to a country where they can be safe.

“There is nothing to be gained by lengthening the waiting time for asylum seekers to get work papers, and there is much to lose. Mainers would end up needing to provide for the asylum seekers twice as long.”

In July, Mills relaxed restrictions on General Assistance eligibility to allow more asylum seekers to qualify for welfare benefits, an action that reversed a policy of her predecessor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

At the time, Mills said the new policy was aimed at dealing with the sudden surge of asylum seekers who arrived legally in Maine and who were forced to live at the Portland Expo.

Members of the Portland City Council echoed the concerns of Pingree and Mills.

“This proposed change in policy defies reason and creates further downward pressure on municipalities like Portland at a time of historic lows in unemployment,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said.

“This a step in the complete wrong direction and only increases the likelihood that taxpayers are going to be spending money they don’t need to,” Councilor Justin Costa said. “If the concerns the Trump administration are citing are serious, they should provide the resources to adjudicate these cases more quickly and that would be an actual effort to address their supposed concerns.”

The public will be able to file written comments on the rule change until Jan. 13, and Pingree said her office was urging people to comment against the proposal.

Professor Anna Welch, who works closely with Portland’s immigrant community, is the founder of the University of Maine School of Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic. Welch and law school students represent the interests of asylum seekers, including a number of those who lived at the Portland Expo.

“It’s appalling,” Welch said of the Trump administration’s proposed rule. She accused the administration of proposing the rule under the guise of making people think it will punish illegal immigrants. But Welch said the government has shut the southern border down, forcing immigrants, who are fleeing persecution and possible death in their home countries, to enter the United States by whatever means they can find.

“For the administration to say they are somehow filing fraudulent asylum claims is just inaccurate,” she said.

Welch said many of the asylum seekers she has met are highly qualified workers, who may have held jobs in their native countries as doctors, engineers or teachers.

“They are ready, they are active and they want to go to work,” Welch said, adding that forcing them to wait for an additional six months will force them to seek general assistance, something that will place a strain on taxpayers in cities such as Portland.

“From an economic standpoint, this rule makes no sense,” Welch said.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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