Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Monday that she will introduce legislation to reduce the waiting period before asylum seekers can legally work in the U.S. in response to concerns raised by officials in Portland and other Maine communities.

Pingree, who represents the 1st District, said the bill, which she will introduce after Labor Day, would be similar to one introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, this summer. The bills would allow immigrants to apply for a work permit immediately upon applying for asylum and would allow them to begin working after 30 days, pending approval by immigration officials.

Under current law, asylum seekers must wait 150 days before even applying for a federal work permit plus a minimum of 30 more days for the approval process. But many immigrants end up waiting longer because the 150-day “clock” can stop for a variety of reasons, leaving the asylum applicants unable to earn a paycheck. The issue has become particularly acute in Portland, where the city has paid out millions of dollars in General Assistance benefits for asylum seekers who cannot legally work.

“Easing this transition for asylum seekers and Maine communities is a complicated problem, but I think there are commonsense changes we can make on the federal level to help – things like making sure there are the staffing resources needed to reach quicker decisions on asylum applications, giving our communities adequate assistance for educating and training new populations, and clearing up bureaucratic hurdles like the work waiting period,” Pingree said in a statement.

Pingree announced the initiative after discussing immigration issues at Portland City Hall with members of the Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development. Those in attendance were Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton, Saco Mayor Don Pilon, and Augusta Mayor David Rollins.

The asylum process has been a contentious issue in Maine since Gov. Paul LePage eliminated asylum seekers from the state General Assistance rolls in June 2014. Until then, asylum seekers were eligible to receive state General Assistance vouchers for rent and other basic needs until they received their federal work authorization documents.

The LePage administration’s policy change affected at least 779 immigrants in Portland, forcing the city to decide whether to spend local taxpayers’ money on continued aid or cut the asylum seekers off from what might be their only means of support. Last year, Portland spent roughly $5 million on asylum seekers and did not receive a state reimbursement. This year, the city has established a one-time, $2.6 million fund to continue some assistance.

Congress established the 180-day waiting period as part of a 1996 welfare reform law in response to concerns that immigrants were filing false asylum claims in order to work in the U.S. until their asylum applications were rejected.

King proposed a similar measure to the one he submitted this summer in a 2013 immigration reform bill that passed the Democrat-controlled Senate but was never taken up by the Republican-controlled House.

“In Maine, we’ve welcomed asylum seekers and our communities are stronger for it,” King said July 31 while announcing his bill. “But today, federal law prevents them from even trying to get a job to support themselves and their families – and that just doesn’t make sense. It’s time that we reduce the mandatory waiting period so that we can give asylum seekers a better shot at the opportunities they came to this country to pursue in the first place, help municipalities maintain their already constrained finances, and bring eager workers into our economy at a time when many companies are looking for them.”

Also in attendance at Monday’s meeting were Christopher Hall with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce; Robyn Merrill with Maine Equal Justice Partners; Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services; and representatives from the offices of King and of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

 

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