Efforts by Maine’s congressional delegation to shorten the time asylum seekers must wait to work got a potentially powerful boost this week from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed the effort for the first time.

The chamber is supporting bills sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, to shorten the waiting period to 30 days, a move that would allow asylum seekers to become self-sufficient sooner, while also helping businesses address workforce shortages.

Asylum Seekers Maine

Asylum-seekers are given instructions upon arriving at the Portland Expo Center on April 10, in Portland, Maine. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

Support for those efforts follows the chamber’s launch in May of a national immigration reform campaign that focuses on securing the border and fixing the country’s immigration system. The national business organization is influential among congressional Republicans, and advocates hope the endorsement can help break years of gridlock over the issue.

The chamber cited bills sponsored by Pingree and Collins, along with 14 other bipartisan reforms, in a letter to members of Congress on July 19 urging the parties to come together and take action.

“The antiquated legal immigration system and its woefully insufficient supply of worker visas have for years significantly hindered the ability of companies to meet their workforce needs,” wrote Neil Bradley, the chamber’s head of advocacy and chief policy officer.

“In addition, the vast shortcomings of the legal immigration system are a significant contributing factor to the continuing challenges at the southern border,” he continued. “The only way Congress can effectively address these challenges is to reach across party lines and work together.”


It’s believed to be the first time the chamber has endorsed efforts to shorten the six-month waiting period for work permits, which was enacted in 1996 in part to address perceived abuses in which immigrants could file false asylum claims and work in the U.S. until their asylum was denied.

Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Press Herald that the chamber’s support for the asylum seeker bills is in response to businesses struggling to find workers. 

“With more job openings than we have workers in this country, the workforce challenges are reaching a fever pitch for businesses of all sizes across every industry,” Baselice said. 

“Our member companies are pleading with us to do everything we can to help them meet their workforce needs. That includes the U.S. Chamber advocating for bills like the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2023, which will help many businesses in Maine and across the country find the workers they need to fill long-vacant job openings.”

The chamber launched the LIBERTY Campaign in May, which includes 441 national, state and local business organizations seeking border security and immigration reforms, including creating new visa options for international students, entrepreneurs, and other high-demand workers to help American companies meet their workforce needs. 

“Thus far, the response to this campaign and what it is calling for has been overwhelmingly positive from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress,” Baselice said. “Many of the concepts and ideas that we have been advocating for in our meetings with the Hill are embodied in various bills that are supported by many different members of Congress in both parties.” 


Both Pingree and Collins have introduced similar bills to reduce waiting periods. Both described their bills as “common sense” proposals. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also has advocated for shorter waiting periods and signed on as a co-sponsor.

“It’s my hope that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement will spark immediate action among my colleagues to take up this important bill,” Pingree said in a written statement. “Our communities, local governments, small businesses, and new neighbors are counting on us.”

Since asylum seekers often rely on public assistance until they can work, Collins said in a written statement, her bill will also help ease financial pressures on host communities, whose budgets and resources are being stretched thin.

“Asylum seekers are eager to work and support themselves and their family,” Collins said. “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. My commonsense legislation would also lessen the burden on the budgets of communities hosting asylum seekers, which is something that we can agree upon across the political spectrum.”

The U.S. Chamber is the largest lobbying group in the country and generally supports more conservative policies.

Through March, the chamber had spent more than $19 million lobbying federal policymakers, followed by the National Association of Retailers ($13.4 million) and Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($9.1 million), according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics.


Immigration reform advocates cheered the chamber’s endorsement.

Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, described the chamber as a “longstanding advocate for bipartisan, sensible immigration reform” in a written statement to the Press Herald.

“The Chamber’s voice here is helpful and influential,” Benenson said. “Businesses are providing important opportunities to asylum seekers, evacuated Afghans, and others here for humanitarian reasons and recognize that Congress should take steps to help people in this position to obtain work and support themselves.”

The extent of that influence remains to be seen, especially in the House of Representatives, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other influential members remain loyal to former President Donald Trump, who is seeking his party’s nomination for 2024, and his hardline border policies.

During the pandemic, Trump successfully extended the waiting period for work authorization to a full year – a policy that remained in place until February 2022.

The chamber’s endorsement comes as Maine continues to receive hundreds of asylum seekers, who have been straining the city’s emergency shelter system because they have no ability to earn income and because of a severe housing shortage.


Through mid-June, more than 1,500 asylum seekers had arrived in Portland. And it can take years for them to receive permission to work.

Asylum seekers cannot apply for work authorization until 150 days after filing their asylum application, which can take up to a year. Work authorizations cannot be issued until six months after the application has been filed, but delays often result in longer wait times.

The chamber’s endorsement could help bring more Republicans on board. Some state Republicans have already embraced the idea, which has also earned support from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

In May, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, that called for the state’s Department of Labor to request a waiver from the federal government to allow asylum seekers in Maine to work within 30 days of applying. It’s a longshot bid since no such waivers are available under federal law.

A Labor Department spokesperson said the letter will be sent to the United States Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services when the law takes effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns its special session.

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