The rules that keep asylum seekers from working for at least six months don’t work for anyone.

A 38-year-old asylum seeker who asked to be identified as Patrick is photographed at Portland’s Health & Human Services Department on Feb. 11. Patrick told a Press Herald reporter that he worked for himself selling clothing in Angola, where he is from, and would like to do the same here. A new bill would reduce the waiting period before an asylum seeker is eligible to work to 30 days from 180 days. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

They don’t work for the asylum seekers, who are forced to rely on welfare and charity to get by. They don’t help the communities where the immigrants reside, which have to shoulder the burden of new residents who are unfamiliar with the area and unable to make a living.

They don’t help the businesses that need workers, or the cities and towns that need new residents and the spark they provide. They don’t help families who need caretakers for their old and young loved ones.

No, the only people who the restrictive rules help are those who don’t want asylum seekers here at all – those who want to make their lives here as difficult as possible in the hope that they won’t succeed, and that others won’t follow them.

What good is that?

And yet despite this barrier, and so many others, asylum seekers are succeeding, proving why it’s such a beneficial investment to give them help if they need it, and why it makes so much sense to let them help themselves.


Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, has introduced the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which would reduce the waiting period before a person seeking asylum is eligible to work to 30 days.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, cosponsored by Maine independent Sen. Angus King.

A federal law passed in 1996 set the waiting period at 180 days. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump lengthened it to a full year, though a federal judge recently called that rule illegal, and the old standard is once again being used.

It is still far too long. Families seeking asylum typically arrive here with nothing following a dangerous and uncertain journey. The Africans who make up the majority of asylum seekers in Maine typically fly to South America first before beginning the arduous road to the southern border of the United States.

Asylum seekers don’t necessarily want to leave their homes any more than anyone else would. But they do so, then travel for months over perilous trails, to escape persecution and build a better future for themselves and their families. Upon arrival, they want nothing more than to do just that.

But because of the work restrictions, they can’t get a job, even in a place like Maine where so many businesses are struggling to find workers. When the immigrants are told that they cannot work right away, their frustration is palpable, and understandable.


“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 system until their situation changes in court,” the resettlement coordinator for the city of Portland told the Press Herald earlier this month.

So rather than getting to work supporting themselves, and contributing to their new community, asylum seekers have to wait. In Portland, they typically spend four to five months in a hotel, then four to five months in a shelter, paid for by the government at one level or another – money that could be used elsewhere, perhaps to help the area’s affordable-housing shortage.

It’s nonsense, and it’s handing a victory to the worst and most reactionary voices on immigration – those who think refugees and asylum seekers are costly to taxpayers and a threat to American culture.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Asylum seekers affirm the best about our country: that it is a place of opportunity, safety and community. Their numbers are low compared to the overall U.S. population, and over time, they contribute far more than they cost, in both in economic and cultural senses.

And they do it while the rules and some elected officials do what they can to make it as hard as possible.

Imagine what they could do without those restrictions.

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