Federal and state lawmakers are renewing efforts to shorten the amount of time asylum seekers must wait before they can work and become self-sufficient.

Local officials in communities such as Portland, a destination for waves of people seeking asylum, have called on federal officials for years to reduce the waiting period for work permits, which is a minimum of six months and often much longer. They argue speeding up the process is a way to address workforce shortages as well as reduce the costs of providing financial assistance to asylum seekers who aren’t allowed to support themselves.

But every effort dating to at least to 2015, when Sen. Angus King of Maine submitted a bill to shorten the wait period to 30 days, has failed to gain traction in Congress because the appeals have been caught up in partisan and regional conflicts over immigration reform and border security.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, have proposed similar bills in recent years. And both are doing so again this session, while King, an independent, is signing on as a co-sponsor.

Lawmakers at the state level are trying to help, but also face long odds of success. A state senator is proposing a bill that, if passed, would request a waiver from the federal government to allow asylum seekers in Maine to work as soon as they file their asylum applications.

Beth Stickney, an advisory board member for the Maine Business Immigrant Coalition and the immigration law and policy counsel for the American Business Immigrant Coalition, applauded the state’s congressional delegation for continuing to press the issue even though immigration reform remains a tough sell in Congress, whether it’s sweeping changes or more targeted changes to address specific workforce shortages.


“We very much applaud Sen. Collins and Rep. Pingree in their continued efforts to move that needle, but it’s definitely going to be an uphill battle,” Stickney said. “Even though it is a discrete issue, it will unfortunately remain a politicized issue that I think will have a hard time getting passed, much to the frustration of employers everywhere and the human beings who have the absolute right under U.S. to apply for asylum.”

The federal requirement that asylum seekers wait at least six months before they can work was adopted in 1996 as a way to reduce the number of false asylum claims that were being filed simply to buy time so people could work in the country while waiting for their applications to be denied. The law requires a person to wait 150 days after filing their asylum application before applying for work authorization, which can be granted no earlier than 180 days after filing the asylum claim.


Despite national polarization over the issue, calls for allowing asylum seekers to work and become self-sufficient are widely supported in Maine by Republicans, Democrats and independents. The fact that Maine has more jobs available than there are workers to fill them is a key reason for the broad support.

Even former Gov. Paul LePage, who opposed efforts to help asylum seekers during his eight years in office, revised his position during the gubernatorial campaign last fall, saying at a debate in Portland that “if asylum seekers are here, and (President) Joe Biden is not going to enforce federal law on immigration … I want to put them to work.”

Collins started pushing for the reform in 2019 and announced on Friday that she introduced a bill with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent and former Democrat, that would reduce the waiting period from six months to 30 days for asylum seekers who have gone through preliminary screening. And Pingree plans to reintroduce her bill in the House in the coming weeks.


Pingree said in an interview that previous bills on the subject have not even received committee hearings. Lawmakers are usually told such proposals would be better suited for comprehensive immigration reform, which she said “can’t get out of the starting box.”

“I can’t even begin to explain why it is that any bill that has the word immigration or asylum in it becomes sort of like a hot potato,” Pingree said. “These are people who are legally here in the country. Why are we slowing down the process, especially once you have finished your legal application? You have to wait no matter what. Why would we say you can’t work while you’re waiting?”

Pingree said she is encouraged that her bill and Collins’ bill are similar in that both seek to reduce the waiting period to 30 days and would make work permits valid for two years instead of one. She plans to seek out some Republican co-sponsors to help advance her bill this session.

“I think we’re going to make a full-court press on it this year,” she said. “I’m very happy that Sen. Collins has (that bill). It does strengthen it to have a House and Senate bill going at the same time.”

The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2023, introduced by Collins and Sinema and co-sponsored by King, would allow certain asylum seekers to receive work authorizations starting 30 days after filing an asylum application. It would apply to people seeking asylum at an official port of entry, as long as their asylum claim is not frivolous, the individual is not detained, and their identities have been verified and checked against the federal government’s terrorist watch lists.

“Over the span of the last two years, an historic number of asylum seekers have arrived in Portland and other communities after crossing our southern border,” Collins said in a written statement. “These asylum seekers could give a much-needed boost to Maine businesses that are facing labor shortages, but the lengthy work authorization process prevents them from getting jobs.


“Our commonsense legislation would lessen the burden on the budgets of communities hosting asylum seekers, while allowing these individuals and their families to support themselves as they want to do, bringing needed skills to the cities and towns in which they settle.”

An asylum seeker stands outside of a hotel in South Portland in 2022. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Collins, King and Sinema, the chair of the Senate Border Management Subcommittee, introduced a similar bill last year.

King advocated for the change and other immigration reforms during an appearance on “Face the Nation” last month.

“I’m hearing from businesses in Maine all the time about a shortage of workers,” King said. “It’s one of our biggest economic problems after inflation. So we’ve got to work on legal immigration for workforce.”


At the state level, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, is taking a different approach – seeking a federal waiver to allow asylum seekers in Maine to go to work as soon as they file their asylum application. It’s not clear that federal law would allow such a waiver or whether any other states have asked, but the proposal would allow Maine and other states to customize their work rules for asylum seekers, rather than through a “one-size-fits-all” approach, he said.


“I don’t want to second-guess what’s appropriate in southern states, but it would be great if Maine could have flexibility to customize the policy, so we can get people into the workforce instead of on the welfare roll,” said Brakey, who said he was working on the bill with House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland.

A spokesperson for Talbot Ross said the speaker was awaiting the final bill language before commenting on the proposal.

Pingree said she’s not sure whether such a waiver is possible, but she’s willing to fight for one.

“I have no idea if that’s possible, but I give them a 100%  for being creative and I would be willing to go to bat for them,” she said. “I think it’s worth trying anything. If states could get waivers that would be great and I would be happy to help. It’s a good way for the states to make a point.”

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