Around this time last year, this editorial board commended Rep. Chellie Pingree for her introduction of the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which sought to make a person seeking asylum eligible to work 30 days after filing their asylum application.

Pedro Afonso Maria Miguel, right, sits Feb. 9 with his daughter Jamila Miguel, 7, on chairs on which the family slept at the Portland Family Shelter. Miguel, his wife, Anadia Miguel, center, and their children are asylum seekers from Angola. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sen. Susan Collins had introduced a similar bill in the Senate, Sen. Angus King was a co-sponsor.

One year on, the wait to work is still at least 150 days long. With King back in the co-sponsor seat, both Pingree and Collins are trying again. And the steady stream of asylum seekers arriving in Portland, fast becoming overwhelmed, has resulted in families with nowhere else to go staying in shelters that are so crowded they are forced to sleep sitting upright in chairs.

Central to the self-sufficiency hoped for by newcomers to Maine is the ability to work a job and support themselves.

This is no longer a concept particularly mired in political disagreement – the persistence of the pandemic-hastened labor shortage has broken down some traditional opposition.

In a polarized Congress, even if consensus can’t be reached on grounds of dignity and fairness, one would think the growing, obvious economic imperative couldn’t really be resisted. But you’d be wrong.


“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 told the Press Herald in February.

“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, Collins and King have a big task ahead. For the good of Maine and everybody who lives here, our congressional delegation has no choice but to prioritize this work and keep going with the “full-court press” Pingree has referred to.

At the state level, state Sen. Eric Brakey is working on a bill that would request a waiver from the federal government to permit asylum seekers to work as soon as they file their asylum claims. While seeking this kind of flexibility is absolutely the right idea, it’s too soon to say if the proposal is workable.

Even if it is, federal movement on the question is still the major target.

Having failed to develop and enact system-wide immigration reform, the Biden administration has recently moved to dramatically crack down on asylum at the border.


Just as nothing has been done to expedite work authorization, nothing has been done to improve the processing of asylum claims, which can take upward of five years, or to update other outdated laws.

The scale of the dysfunction has also led to a grave irony. As The New York Times revealed in a major investigation published last week, thousands of migrant children have been put to work in factories and plants across America. In violation of child labor laws, they are doing treacherously inappropriate jobs for long hours. They are often alone, without their families, having arrived as unaccompanied minors. Their stories are alarming and incredibly sad.

While the existence of this “shadow workforce” is its own scandal, we were reminded of a recent statement by Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services. “We really need to help these families and the city of Portland at this point needs help, too,” Dow told the paper. “As a state we need to figure out with these children, who are our future, what we want to be for them and how we want to play a role in their history.”

The ability to legally get to work would greatly help migrant communities. Plenty of jobs are out there. Congress needs to open them up to be done.

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