A young asylum-seeker waves goodbye to shelter staff as they leave the Portland Expo for hotels in Lewiston and Freeport in Aug. 2023  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A broad border security and military aid bill released Sunday by U.S. Senate negotiators contains a provision from Sen. Susan Collins to speed up work permits for asylum seekers – a move long sought by immigration advocates, municipal officials and business groups in Maine.

The proposal would remove the waiting period for asylum seekers to obtain work permits and seek jobs in the United States, while also creating a new, tougher initial screening process for people entering the country to apply for asylum.

Maine’s congressional delegation has long called for a shorter waiting period, and most of the delegation expressed strong support Monday for that provision and other elements of the deal.

But the bill, which ties border protection and immigration reforms to funding for conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, is facing opposition from both progressives and conservatives in the Senate, where it would need at least 60 votes to survive any filibuster attempts. Members of the Senate could take up the legislation as soon as Wednesday.

It faces major political obstacles outside the Senate, too. Immigration advocates called the proposal “Draconian and antithetical to human rights.” Republicans in control of the House said the bill would be dead on arrival and former President Donald Trump is calling on his allies in Congress to kill the bill because it would be “a gift to Democrats.”

President Biden called on Congress to quickly pass the legislation. “It will make our country safer, make our border more secure, treat people fairly and humanely while preserving legal immigration, consistent with our values as a nation,” he said in a prepared statement Sunday.


Maine’s delegation expressed support Monday, citing the work permit reforms as an important step for the state.

Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement that the bill negotiated by Sens. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, includes her proposal to speed up work permits for asylum seekers who have shown they are not a threat and are not filing a frivolous asylum claim.

“This supplemental funding package is comprised of four pillars: securing our border, helping Ukraine counter Russian aggression, assisting Israel in its fight against terrorism, and deterring a rising China,” Collins said. “I appreciate the efforts of Senators Lankford, Murphy, and Sinema, who authored the Border Act, which includes provisions I requested that will speed up access to work authorizations for asylum seekers.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also praised the bill and said he and other members of Maine’s congressional delegation have been pushing to speed up work permits for nearly a decade.

“The proposed changes are long past overdue and will slow the flow of economic migrants crossing the southern border, crack down on fraud, tackle the fentanyl problem and provide faster access to employment authorization for screened asylum seekers,” King said in a prepared statement. “While not perfect, this bipartisan compromise would not only boost Maine’s workforce but also take asylum seekers off public assistance.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, also has submitted a bill to shorten the waiting period for asylum seekers to get work permits, but without the additional screening requirements contained in the Senate version. In a prepared statement Monday, she said that she’s still reviewing the bill and remains committed to passing her version, but is encouraged by bipartisan efforts to address the border.


“I’m particularly glad to see that it acknowledges that speeding up work authorizations is essential to any agreement, and vital to helping asylum seekers, businesses, and our communities in Maine and across the country,” Pingree said.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, said he supports the bill and called on House Republicans to allow a floor vote.

“Mainers expect us to deal with the border crisis, not kick the can down the road while fentanyl pours into our country and border agents are overwhelmed by migrants,” Golden said.

About 200 asylum seekers are being moved from the Portland Expo in Aug. 2023 as the temporary shelter is shutting down. A proposal to speed up work permits for asylum seekers would remove the waiting period to seek jobs in the United States, while also creating a new, tougher initial screening process for people entering the country to apply for asylum. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Under existing federal law, asylum seekers have to wait at least six months from filing their full asylum applications to even apply for a work permit. It can take a year to pull together the documents to apply for asylum, and the work permit application is often delayed in processing.

The bill before the Senate would allow asylum seekers who pass their initial screening to immediately receive a work permit.



But it would increase the threshold to be allowed to enter the country to seek asylum. In addition to finding an asylum seeker has a “credible fear” of persecution or torture in their home country, an officer would need to determine it’s “reasonably possible” that the asylum application will be successful, rather than the lower standard of “significantly possible.” It would give asylum officers more ability to refuse asylum applications if the officer has “reasonable grounds” to believe the asylum seeker could have safely relocated to another part of their home country or region.

And the names of asylum seekers would need to be verified and checked against records and databases maintained by the attorney general, secretary of state and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

A senior administration official told reporters Monday that the bill would modernize security at the border to detect the deadly drug fentanyl and keep it from being smuggled into the U.S., and add much needed staffing, including more than 1,000 border agents, tripling the number of asylum officers and adding immigration judges.

“The bill has a number of critical reforms,” the official said. “This agreement, if passed, would be the toughest and fairest set of reforms to secure the border that we have had in decades.”

Despite having supported efforts to allow asylum seekers to seek jobs, immigration advocates in Maine and at the national level criticized the proposal, saying it’s modeled after Trump’s immigration policies, including the so-called “remain-in-Mexico” policy that called for rapidly expelling people attempting to cross into the U.S. outside of an official port of entry.

Sue Roche, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to immigrants, said the Senate bill is “a moral and humanitarian failure,” not a compromise, and it should be rejected.


“Language in the bill about asylum flies in the face of international law and would strip away due process for incredibly vulnerable people, permitting rapid expulsions that will inevitably strand people in Mexico and leave them in peril, among other dangerous provisions,” Roche said in a written statement. “We can and must build a just and welcoming asylum system and lawmakers should come to the table with strategies that improve access, and preserve and expand human and legal rights – using people fleeing for their lives as political fodder is unacceptable.”

The bill is supported by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said he will bring it to the floor as soon as Wednesday. Trump has been whipping up opposition among Republicans in the House, arguing it would be “a death wish for Republicans” as he campaigns to unseat Biden.


Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, specifically criticized the changes proposed to the asylum work permitting process on social media.

“Let me be clear: The Senate Border Bill will NOT receive a vote in the House,” Scalise said on X, formerly Twitter. “Here’s what the people pushing this ‘deal’ aren’t telling you: It accepts 5,000 illegal immigrants a day and gives automatic work permits to asylum recipients – a magnet for more illegal immigration.”

Scalise was referring to a provision in the bill that would allow the president to close the border if the seven-day average of encounters exceeds 5,000 a day and would require the border to be closed if more than 8,500 encounters occur on any given day.


Maine lawmakers have been trying to speed up work permits for asylum seekers since at least 2015.

Efforts this year from Collins and Pingree have been backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Maine State Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders as a way to address the workforce shortage and reduce the costs to municipalities, which provide housing and food to support asylum seekers until they become self-sufficient.

Last year, state lawmakers took the unusual step of seeking a federal waiver to allow Maine to put asylum seekers to work sooner than federal laws allow, even though so much waiver process exists.

The Maine Department of Labor requested that waiver in October. And last week the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the request, telling state officials that such a move would require congressional action.

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