It’s just one of the absurdities in the pitched debate over immigration — while the Trump administration works to keep immigrants seeking asylum from entering the country, asylum seekers already here are kept from working by bureaucratic backlog. While the president asks for billions to patrol and seal off the border, there’s no appetite for spending the relative pennies it would take to get more immigrants in the workforce.

Immigrants like Manuel Quiteke, who last month was staying along with his familiy at a shelter in Portland. The 43-year-old from Angola worked as a technician on an oil rig for 20 years, he told the Portland Press Herald, before his work with a human rights group made him a marked man.

Fearing for his safety and that of his family, he came to the U.S., where he can’t work while his asylum application is processed, a time period of at least 150 days. So instead of earning a paycheck, he is sleeping on a mat in a converted gym, living off taxpayer dollars.

The delay is one of the central problems with the asylum program. It’s why the Portland shelter is experiencing record high numbers, as asylees come to Maine because of Portland’s reputation for generosity. It’s why the city and Gov. Paul LePage engaged in a protracted battle over general assistance funding.

The city’s generosity will ultimately pay off, as it and the state as a whole benefit from the influx of people who will eventually be able to work, many of them with college degrees and valuable work experience gained in their home countries.

But in the meantime it puts pressure on municipalities for executing a function that should be the responsibility of the federal government. It pits hard-off local residents against each other, and it rewards anti-immgrant politics.


That all can be avoided by allowing asylees to work as soon as possible. The federal government should provide more support for cities like Portland that have a high number of asylees, but that would only shift the costs.

Shortening the time before asylees can obtain a work permit from 150 days to 30 days, as in a bill proposed by Sen. Angus King, would lower taxpayer costs and provide more workers, something that is necessary in Maine, which is not producing enough workers to replace those who are retiring.

It’s not like we don’t have the resources. President Donald Trump earlier this year requested $33 billion for border security, including $18 billion for a border wall alone. Detaining immigrant families indefinitely at the scale necessitated by the president’s border policies will cost billions of dollars a year by itself.

Unraveling the red tape around asylum petitions would not elicit cheers at one of Trump’s rallies, but it would be do a lot of good for the country, its economy, and its standing in the world.

The president wants to keep people like Quiteke, the Angolan asylee, out of the country, and to do so he wants Americans to think they are a drain on our society.

But Quiteke, and others like him, see a future here, if only they are allowed to have one.

“After I have a work permit,” he told the Press Herald, “I’m going back to do what I know how to do best — go back to the oil field, make some money, buy a house and buy a car.”

For all our sake, he shouldn’t have to wait so long to get started.

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