Rep. Chellie Pingree’s proposal to reduce asylum seekers’ wait time for work permits from six months to 30 days is the focus of a new national campaign aimed at winning support in a divided and dysfunctional Congress.

Refugees International and nearly 40 other groups launched the #LetAsylumSeekersWork campaign Thursday hoping to rally support for the Maine Democrat’s bill in the face of a growing backlog of asylum applications and an increasing need for workers across the United States.

At the same time, all work in the House of Representatives has come to a standstill as Republicans struggle to elect a new speaker after ousting Kevin McCarthy from the position two weeks ago.

Maine Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree has introduced a bill to shorten wait times for asylum seekers to receive work permits. The bill is part of a new national campaign to help asylum seekers find jobs and help solve the country’s workforce shortage problem. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

More than 842,000 asylum cases currently await adjudication, including an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 in Maine, with more applying daily. The backlog nationwide is expected to top 1 million by the end of 2024, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman. Meanwhile, the number of job openings across the country rose to 9.6 million in August, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month.

“Maine is enduring unprecedented staffing shortages, with just 54 workers available for every 100 open jobs,” said Pingree, D-1st District. “Asylum seekers are lawfully protected to be here. They deserve the right to be self-sufficient and become part of their new communities.”

Introduced in February 2022 and resubmitted this year, Pingree’s bipartisan Asylum Seekers Work Authorization Act has gained increasing support from immigrant advocates, business organizations, faith leaders and members of Congress, including Rep. Maria Salazar, R-Florida.


“Asylum seekers come here fleeing persecution, torture and violence,” Salazar said in a prepared statement. “Our asylum system is broken and in desperate need of reform. Asylum seekers deserve a chance to support themselves and their families through meaningful work.”


Backed by more than 36 organizations nationwide, including the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, the campaign to promote Pingree’s proposal will encourage everyday citizens, business owners and others to push for support in the House and Senate.

Mufalo Chitam, the coalition’s executive director, said asylum seekers come to the United States because they want to work, to support their families here and in their native countries.

“They are ready to work yesterday,” Chitam said. “If this bill passed tomorrow, it would help solve our housing crisis. Landlords are looking for tenants who are working. Many asylum seekers staying in our homeless shelters could afford to rent at market rates if they had jobs.”

Supporters say Pingree’s bill would correct a 180-day work barrier that was enacted by Congress in 1996 to discourage people from applying for asylum. The law requires a person to wait 150 days after filing an asylum application before applying for work authorization, which can be granted no sooner than 180 days after filing an asylum claim.


But given current processing delays, asylum seekers often wait eight months to a year for work authorization, according to the National Immigration Forum.

“This lengthy waiting period results in asylum seekers being left to rely on general assistance and the available services of their hosting communities,” the forum concluded in its analysis of Pingree’s bill.

A major aspect of Pingree’s bill would eliminate the two-year renewal schedule for work authorization, so asylum seekers would no longer have to renew their permits while their claims are being processed, which now takes about 10 years, according to the USCIS Ombudsman. This proposed change is intended to reduce processing backlogs and prevent workers from being laid off when their permits are up for renewal.

“Asylum seekers would be able to stay connected to their jobs, while businesses and employers are able to retain their workforce,” the immigration forum stated.


Immigrant advocates are differentiating Pingree’s bill from an alternative bipartisan proposal from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, which would keep the two-year renewal schedule and only apply to certain asylum seekers who enter the U.S. through official ports of entry, or are in country before enactment regardless of how they arrived.


Pingree’s is “the only bill out there that would effectively meet the goals of helping individuals and families, Maine businesses, and our whole state to thrive,” said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland.

Pingree’s bill would not only shorten the wait time to apply for a work permit, Roche said, it also would keep asylum seekers at work and eliminate needless paperwork and bureaucracy.

“This campaign is a priority for our clients in their pursuit to find stability and security in their new home state of Maine and it must be a priority for all of us,” Roche said in a prepared statement. “When asylum seekers are allowed to work, we all win.”

Collins also introduced her proposal in February 2022 and resubmitted it this year, joined by Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent.

Asked about the differences between the House and Senate proposals, Collins’ staff noted that Maine’s delegation has led the nation for years in trying to address this issue.

“The delegation is continuing to work to achieve consensus and attract support from across the ideological spectrum so we can craft a bill that actually has a chance of becoming law,” said Annie Clark, Collins’ spokesperson. “Allowing asylum seekers to obtain jobs more quickly and become self-sufficient would be a win-win for communities, employers and asylum seekers across Maine and America.”

Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who proposed legislation on this issue in 2015, is co-sponsoring the current Senate bill. He’s been working with colleagues in both chambers to develop legislation that can attract bipartisan support and the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate.

“While he would vote for either proposal, Sen. King is focused on the end result,” said Matthew Felling, King’s spokesperson. “(That would be) a better system for asylum seekers (who are) ready and willing to work, and a workforce solution for the countless Maine business owners statewide looking for more employees.”

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Thursday to clarify a condition of Sen. Susan Collins’ work permit bill. 

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