What do Manhattan and Maine have in common?

Most would say not too much. Typically, they would be right.

Yet the Big Apple and the Pine Tree State face a pair of common challenges today: historically tight labor markets and an influx of people desperately seeking asylum.

Like other cities and states coming out of the pandemic, Maine is enduring unprecedented staffing shortages, with just 54 workers available for every 100 open jobs.

For Luke’s Lobster, a family-owned seafood company based in Saco, Maine, the labor shortage is affecting business across their 22 restaurants nationwide, but acutely in Maine. Operating at around 80% of their typical summer staffing capacity and only around 50% currently, Luke’s Lobster is buying, processing and selling less lobster than previous years.

Countless employers have told us they would jump at the chance to hire asylum seekers, and those who already have say these workers bring critically in-demand skills to their teams.


Take David Ngandu, a physician from the Democratic Republic of Congo who sought asylum in Maine. Ready to join Maine’s understaffed health care sector, Mr. Ngandu waited months for a work permit. Now legally able to work, today he is a phlebotomist and interpreter at MaineHealth, who is on his way to becoming a licensed physician.

But Ngandu’s experience is not universal, as the federal government is standing in the way of a perfect marriage between willing workers and employers eager to hire.

In 1996, Congress enacted a law that has blocked asylum seekers from swiftly obtaining work authorizations. Regulations require a person who has filed an asylum claim to wait 150 days – nearly half of a year – before applying for a work authorization, which itself can be granted no earlier than 180 days after an asylum claim is filed. For those with approved asylum status, it can take up to 15 months to process their work permit.

These delays mean businesses lose out on the skilled workers they desperately need. Luke’s Lobster told us a number of would-be employees waited so long for their authorization that they left the U.S. for Canada.

I don’t blame them. They want to support themselves and their families. Instead, processing paperwork and red tape require them to wait indefinitely – often while relying on our social safety net to survive.

Indeed, in addition to supporting and housing asylum seekers, local governments are dealing with the nationwide affordable housing crisis and increased homelessness, pushing shelter capacities and municipal resources to the brink. This is not sustainable, nor is it necessary when thousands of jobs are waiting to be filled.


The law causing these roadblocks has remained on the books, almost untouched, for nearly three decades.

While I wasn’t in Congress when this law was enacted, I see its limitations and I am working across chambers and the partisan divide to fix its flaws.

My bicameral, bipartisan Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act would correct this counterproductive law by reducing the current 180-day waiting period for work authorization eligibility to 30 days.

This simple, commonsense change makes no alterations to the asylum process, but it would allow an asylum seeker to apply for work authorization as soon as their asylum claim is filed, putting them on the path to economic opportunity, filling critical job openings, and freeing up public resources.

As Ronald Reagan reminded us in his final speech in office, our nation’s greatness comes from allowing people from all over the world to enter America’s Golden Door – a reference to the erstwhile entry point for millions of immigrants on Ellis Island.

Like Manhattan, off Maine’s coast sits House Island, which also served as a federal immigration station at the turn of the 20th century, albeit smaller than Ellis Island. Then, as now, people fleeing famine, war, violence and political persecution in their homelands came to Maine seeking safety and prosperity in America.

Passing my bill to speed up work permits for asylum seekers will give them the economic opportunity generations of newcomers have enjoyed before them, while providing businesses with the workforce they badly need.

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