Cots that asylum seekers sleep in are lined up inside the Portland Expo this past June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine’s Department of Labor has asked the federal government for special permission to let asylum seekers get jobs and support themselves.

The agency on Wednesday formally requested a waiver of the federal waiting period for work permits. Although there is no provision in federal law for such a waiver, and no state has ever received one, there has been growing support to reduce the waiting time as Portland and other communities throughout the country are struggling to accommodate a surge of asylum seekers arriving at the southern U.S. border, even as many employers are struggling to hire workers.

Asylum seekers are prohibited from applying for a work permit until six months after filing their asylum application, which can take a year to complete and file.

Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman wrote in a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the waiting period deprives asylum seekers of the ability to become self-sufficient, placing increased financial pressure on the state and local communities, and deprives businesses of workers during a severe workforce shortage.

Fortman suggested presidential action might be needed to fulfill the state’s request.

“The State of Maine respectfully requests that the Biden Administration consider identifying laws and/or utilizing Executive action that will allow asylum seekers to work sooner than 180 days,” Fortman wrote. “Through that process, the State of Maine hopes that DHS and USCIS can consider approval of this waiver request to provide a tremendous boost to Maine’s workforce and economy now and into the future.”


Maine’s unemployment rate was 2.7% in September. That was lower than the national rate of 3.8%.

Fortman said Maine’s workforce shortage is only projected to worsen. The state is seeking to attract 75,000 workers to help fill 750,000 projected job openings by 2030.

About 1,650 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland this year, said Jessica Grondin, city spokeswoman. With the city’s homeless shelter capacity overwhelmed, a new shelter for asylum seekers is set to open in mid-November.

The request comes as immigration advocates across the country are lobbying Congress to support legislation sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, to shorten the waiting under federal law to 30 days. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports Pingree’s bill, and an alternative proposal sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. While both would shorten the waiting period to 30 days, Pingree’s bill would apply broadly and Collins’ bill would only apply to certain asylum seekers who are already here or who enter the U.S. through official ports of entry.

Immigrant advocates in Maine said they support the goal behind the state’s long-0shot request and said it reflects growing national support for reform, but they have little hope it will result in a waiver of federal law.

Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said in a prepared statement that “when asylum seekers are allowed to work, we all win, and ILAP supports changing federal law to shorten the amount of time asylum seekers need to wait to obtain a work permit.”


But Roche said a waiver request is not likely to be successful.

“Immigration is controlled by federal law, and ILAP’s understanding is that current law would prohibit the option of a state-specific waiver that would allow asylum seekers in Maine to work before asylum seekers elsewhere,” Roche said.

Roche said that Pingree’s bill is the “best viable option.” The bill would not only shorten the time to gain a work permit but also eliminate “needless paperwork and bureaucracy.”

Ruben Torres, communications and advocacy lead at the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, said there is more hope that political support is building, but that the waiver is unlikely.

“You have a population that really wants to work and that is eager to work and has skills and knowledge to contribute,” he said. “When we see news like this it definitely sends out hope to people, but unfortunately, the way the system is set up … any significant changes have to come from legislation or changes in federal regulation.”

A shortened waiting period is supported by both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and group of nearly 40 immigration advocates, including Refugee International and the Maine Immigrant Rights’ Coalition.


The state’s letter requesting a waiver stems from a bill sponsored by state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, which received bipartisan support in the Legislature and the backing of Gov. Janet Mills. The bill became law on Wednesday, prompting the DOL to send the letter.

Governors in Massachusetts, Illinois and New York also have urged Biden to expedite work permits.

Fortman’s letter includes a detailed list of actions Maine has taken to support and integrate asylum seekers into the state and its workforce, including an executive order from Mills to create an Office of New Americans to oversee long-term planning and integration efforts. Other efforts include a $5.2 million investment in an emergency shelter for asylum seekers, millions more on transitional and permanent housing and funding for legal, educational and other social services.

Staff Writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.

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