When Filipo came to Maine from Angola last fall, he was hoping to start a new life in which he could work and provide for his family. Instead he’s spent months navigating the asylum-seeking process, waiting to be able to get a work permit.

“Spending this entire time without working or having money, it’s a struggle and it’s very stressful,” said the 36-year-old father of two who lives in Portland. He spoke through a translator and asked to be identified as Filipo rather than his real name because he fears for his safety.

He is one of thousands of asylum seekers in the United States who often have to wait a year or longer after they file asylum claims to get authorized to work.

The long wait time is a challenge not just for the asylum seekers themselves but for states and municipalities like Portland, which is currently providing hundreds of them with emergency shelter and aid.

“Here we are in the middle of a worker shortage that people are talking about every day, and Maine has an influx of asylum seekers,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. “We’ve been happy to welcome them to Maine, but it seems unfair to those asylum seekers and their families. They all want to go to work and there are jobs available, but we have this prohibition.”

On Thursday, the Democrat introduced the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which aims to reduce the waiting period before asylum seekers are eligible to work from the current 365 days to 30 days. The bill would not change the asylum process, but it would allow asylum seekers to apply for work authorization as soon as their asylum claims were filed.


Under a federal law passed in 1996, asylum seekers were required to wait at least half a year before being able to obtain authorization to work. The law required that a person, after filing an asylum claim, wait 150 days before being able to apply for work authorization, which could be granted no earlier than 180 days after filing the asylum claim.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump introduced a rule that more than doubled the period asylum seekers needed to wait to apply for work authorization, from 150 days to 365 days. The rule was implemented in August 2020, but due to ongoing litigation, asylum seekers who are members of two immigrant advocacy groups – the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project or CASA de Maryland – are protected from it but still subject to the 180-day waiting period.


On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration’s work permit rules are illegal, though it’s still too early to know how the government will respond to the ruling and if it will be challenged by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Even 150 days is an extremely long time for people to be in the United States without the ability to obtain a job or work lawfully,” said Leidy Perez-Davis, policy director for the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that provides legal resources and advocates for asylum seekers around the U.S.

The group has more than 240,000 asylum-seeking members, including about 1,500 in Maine, and Perez-Davis said expediting the work authorization process – as Pingree’s bill would do – is a top priority for them.


“What this bill would do and why it’s so monumental is it would ensure people are able to apply for work authorization after only 30 days after applying for asylum,” she said. “It would be a huge change. We often hear from our membership how difficult it is to wait six months or a year in order to just apply for a work permit, and then of course there’s waiting time for the adjudication of that application.”

In Angola, Filipo worked selling phone accessories like headphones and chargers. He worked for someone else at first but later opened his own business, which helped him support his siblings as well as his own family.

On Thursday, he and a fellow Angolan, Patrick, who also asked that his real name not be used because of safety concerns, spoke with a reporter at Portland’s Health and Human Services office with the help of a French translator. The two men said they fled danger and violence in their home country.

“We went through so many tough situations,” Filipo said. “We saw our wives being raped and tortured and we were discriminated against.”

Being in the U.S. also hasn’t been easy, he said. “It’s a struggle to come to a new country, especially when you don’t even speak the language and you don’t have the ability to work.”

Patrick, who worked for himself and sold clothing in Angola, said he would like to do the same thing here. Filipo also said he would like to have his own business again. “I want to be free to work for myself,” he said.



Chelsea Hoskins, resettlement coordinator for the city of Portland, said frustration about not being able to work is common among asylum seekers. She often gets asked, ‘Do you have a job for me?’ or ‘Can you help me get a job?’ and has to explain the lengthy process involved in getting work authorization.

“Generally at this point you can see the sadness in their faces, and verbal disgust once they understand that they are stuck in this position of relying on the (General Assistance) system until their situation changes in court,” Hoskins said in an email.

A family shelter case worker told Hoskins about a woman who had been a registered nurse in her home country and took classes to become a certified nurse’s assistant before she had her work authorization. She then began volunteering in a rehabilitation facility, hoping that she would be hired as a CNA once her work authorization came through.

“There are certainly many examples of those scenarios of individuals trying to get training in any related field, knowing they are starting from the bottom,” Hoskins said.

Asylum seekers who come to Portland spend an average of four to five months in hotels and then another four to five months in the city-run family shelter on Chestnut Street, where they’re able to get more intense relocation and housing services, Mayor Kate Snyder said.


“The fact people are living in emergency shelter accommodations in hotels for so long certainly impacts their lives and their ability to integrate into the community,” Snyder said. “We definitely are looking for additional support for resettlement coordination so these folks can start to integrate into the community more, and certainly work authorization is one of those things.”

Pingree said she’s been working on the issue for a while, and hopes the time is right to make changes. “It’s hard to change anything in immigration law,” she said. “Then the Trump administration for the last four years made it much worse. That coupled with staffing shortages and delays in the asylum approval process has compounded it.”

She said shortening the time for work authorization could help relieve the worker shortages in so many parts of the country right now. “I think this administration has been very willing and anxious to move forward on some reforms, so ideally we could see this included as language that’s added to a larger immigration reform bill,” Pingree said.


Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have proposed legislation similar to Pingree’s in the past.

Collins, a Republican, worked with Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, in the last Congress on a bill that, like Pingree’s, would have allowed asylum seekers to file for work authorizations 30 days after they filed their asylum claims.


“I am working to reintroduce this common-sense bill, which would help cities like Portland and their partners in the nonprofit community that are currently caring for a large number of asylum seekers,” Collins said in a statement.

A spokesman for King, an independent, said he is looking into proposing or co-sponsoring a similar measure.

Last week, Snyder said she and Interim City Manager Danielle West met with staff from the offices of Pingree, King and Collins.

“Staff from all three of those offices were very understanding and supportive of the work authorization issue,” Snyder said.

She said they also discussed the funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is currently being used to offset the costs of emergency housing but is set to expire in April.

“They have been very supportive and we will continue to keep communications open,” Snyder said. “And we definitely see Representative Pingree’s bill as a really wonderful show of support for the city of Portland and the work we want to do here with new arrivals.”

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