Sen. Susan Collins announced Friday that she has introduced a bipartisan bill to shorten by five months the length of time asylum seekers must wait before being allowed to work.

The proposal puts the Maine Republican at odds with the Trump administration, which is seeking to lengthen the waiting period for some asylum seekers and, in other cases, withhold work permits entirely. But it aligns her with other members of Maine’s congressional delegation who have long pushed for shorter waiting periods.

People seeking safety in the U.S. from violence or persecution abroad currently must wait at least six months after filing their asylum applications before they can seek work authorization.

That waiting period, which can be much longer because of backlogs and other processing delays, forces many asylum seekers to rely on charity or public assistance, which is only available to non-citizens in certain states.

Maine is one of the few states that allows asylum seekers to receive General Assistance, a safety net program that provides vouchers for basic necessities, such as shelter, food and medicine. That assistance is one of the reasons, along with a sense of safety and existing immigrant communities, that hundreds of asylum seekers have come to Portland and surrounding communities since last summer.

Collins’ bill would reduce that waiting period to 30 days, allowing asylum seekers, many of whom were skilled professionals in their native countries and are eager to work here, to become self-sufficient more quickly.


“The change proposed by our bill will lessen the burden on the budgets of communities hosting asylum seekers while allowing these individuals and their families to support themselves as they want to do, bringing needed skills to the cities and towns in which they settle,” Collins said in a written statement. “I encourage my colleagues to support this common sense legislation to permit these individuals to work and contribute to the local economy while their asylum claims are being adjudicated.”

The bill runs counter to a Trump administration proposal to double the waiting period for many asylum seekers to get work authorization, and is similar to a bill submitted by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

In November, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security introduced a proposal to double the waiting period for asylum seekers seeking work authorization to 365 days.

The proposed rule change would deter illegal entry and “frivolous, fraudulent and otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications,” the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a news release last month. In addition to doubling the waiting period, it would also prohibit work permits from being issued to people who enter the U.S. illegally – not with a visa or through an official port of entry – “absent good cause.”

The comment period on the rule change is open until Jan. 13.

People can seek asylum in several ways. 


They can enter legally by obtaining a visa and then applying for asylum, or they can present at a border crossing to seek asylum. However, immigration advocates say, visas are getting harder to obtain and the Trump administration is not letting as many asylum seekers across the border, prompting some desperate families to enter illegally.

The rule would not change the fact that law-abiding immigrants who ask for asylum, even if they arrived illegally, are permitted to remain while their cases move through immigration courts.

A spokeswoman for Collins did not respond when asked for the senator’s response to the Trump administration proposal.

Pingree first introduced a bill in the House to shorten the waiting period to 30 days back in 2015. Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, became the sponsor of Pingree’s bill in the Senate, but it didn’t go anywhere.

In May, Pingree introduced another bill, “Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2019,” which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on June 26. However, no further action has been taken.

Pingree said in a written statement that she introduced the bill to help address Maine’s workforce shortage and allow asylum seekers to put their skills to work.


“Given that just last month, the Trump administration announced plans to more than double – from 150 days to 365 days – the waiting period to apply for work authorization, it’s even more urgent that Congress act to modify an outdated law that delays asylum seekers from becoming self-sufficient,” Pingree said. “It’s clear that this administration cares more about punishing people who came to our nation seeking safety than strengthening our economy.”

Pingree’s bill has 13 Democratic co-sponsors, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Illhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

Maine Rep. Jared Golden, who represents the more conservative 2nd Congressional District that voted for Trump, is not on the list.

Golden said in a written statement Friday that he supports the goal of shortening waiting periods, but isn’t committing to a specific proposal.

“Shortening the waiting period seems like a common sense solution, but the devil is in the details, so we need to ensure that the policy does not lead to unintended consequences. I plan to closely review the legislation to make sure this policy is the best way to address this problem for Maine,” Golden said.

Although similar, Collins’ bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, is slightly different and references a section of existing law having to do with background checks, Collins’ office said. It wasn’t immediately clear how that reference would change the implementation of the law or how it differs from the current process for screening applicants.


“Our common sense proposal allows individuals to stand on their own two feet and ensures women, children, and families fleeing violence and seeking asylum are treated fairly and humanely,” Sinema said in a written statement.

It’s unlikely Collins’ bill, which also is called “Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2019,” will gain much traction in the Republican-controlled Senate, which is gearing up for a historic impeachment trial of Trump.

Maine is one of the few states that has enacted state legislation that allows non-citizens, such as asylum seekers, to receive public benefits.

Over the summer, more than 450 asylum seekers, primarily families from the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived in Portland. The city declared an emergency and opened the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter, closing it in August after most had moved into permanent housing.

Thousands of people signed up to volunteer and the city raised nearly $1 million private donations to help care for the families. The city is currently accepting applications to reimburse community groups that helped.

Both Pingree and Collins were instrumental in helping secure about $900,000 in federal funding to help the city Portland and several nonprofits offset costs associated with accommodating the unexpected influx of asylum seekers over the summer.

The city is currently experiencing another surge of asylum seekers from the same countries, with nearly 170 people, including pregnant women and children, arriving in the last three weeks. The city’s family shelter is full and its overflow spaces are nearing capacity. The City Council will meet Monday to discuss the situation.

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