Maine Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree both filed written objections this week to a Trump administration proposal that would delay or deny work permits for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.

The two Democrats weighed in separately during the public comment period on the rule change. They both said the proposal would hurt asylum seekers and businesses, as well as put a strain on social service agencies and local governments.

“Adoption of these proposed changes will negatively impact the ability of Maine employers to fill vacancies and the implementation of our economic development plans,” Mills wrote in a letter.

Pingree was one of 50 members of Congress to sign a joint letter that also opposed the proposal.

“Work authorization not only allows asylum seekers to attain self-sufficiency and support themselves and their families, but also helps asylum seekers integrate into local communities,” the letter states. “Without work authorization and the associated access to employment, asylum seekers will have difficulty obtaining drivers’ licenses in many of our home states, as well as trouble obtaining banking services, adequate housing and healthcare due to lack of identification.”

While Pingree was the only member of the Maine congressional delegation to sign that letter, both Maine senators, as well as Pingree, have sponsored legislation that would shorten the waiting periods so asylum seekers could go to work sooner. None of the members in Maine’s delegation has supported the administration’s proposal.

The proposed rule change has not yet been finalized, and the public comment period ended Monday. The federal government will now review the comments and possibly publish a finalized rule. That process does not have a set timeline.

Federal law allows immigrants to apply for asylum based on a credible fear of harm or persecution in their home country. They can enter the United States with a visa and then apply for asylum, or they can request asylum by presenting at a border crossing. Immigration advocates say the Trump administration is making it harder to get a visa or seek asylum at official border crossings, so some desperate families are crossing the border illegally between checkpoints. Those individuals still have the ability under the law to request asylum and they are legally present in the country once they have stated their intent to apply.

People who are seeking safety in the United States currently must wait at least five months after filing their asylum applications before they can seek work authorization. Backlogs and other processing delays can make that waiting period even longer.

With work permits, asylum seekers can find jobs while their immigration cases are pending, a process that can take years. While waiting for work permits, those immigrants are often forced to rely on charity or public assistance, which is only available to non-citizens in certain states.

Maine allows asylum seekers to receive General Assistance, which provides vouchers for basic necessities like shelter, food and medicine. That support, along with a sense of safety and existing immigrant communities, has drawn hundreds of asylum seekers to Portland and surrounding communities since last summer. Neither the mayor nor the city manager of Portland submitted a comment on the proposal.

At an emergency shelter the city has set up for asylum seekers at Portland Expo, a woman from Cameroon feeds her son on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would lengthen that waiting period from a minimum of 150 days to 365 days. It also would bar asylum seekers from getting work permits at all if they did not enter the country through an official port of entry, like an international airport or a border checkpoint.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services news release said the change is necessary to deter illegal entry and “frivolous, fraudulent and otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications.”

Maine’s delegation has generally opposed the rule and pushed for reduced waiting periods.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, introduced a bill in December that would shorten the waiting time to 30 days. The bipartisan measure is co-sponsored by Sen. Krysten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona. It is not likely that bill will gain much traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“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 at the time. “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.”

A spokesman for Collins said she opposes the Trump administration proposal.

Pingree first introduced a bill in the House to shorten the waiting period to 30 days back in 2015. Maine Sen. Angus King, 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 similar bill, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee in June. However, no further action has been taken. That bill has 13 Democratic co-sponors, but Maine Rep. Jared Golden, who represents Maine’s more conservative 2nd Congressional District that voted for Trump, is not among them.

Neither King nor Golden submitted or signed a formal public comment on the new rule. But both have opposed it in public statements, and spokespersons in their offices shared written responses to that effect Tuesday.

“My experience in Lewiston has shown me that most asylum-seekers are eager to work so they can provide for themselves and their families, and to contribute to their new community,” Golden said. “Making asylum-seekers wait an additional six months before applying for a work permit, as the administration is proposing, doesn’t encourage work and places the burden of care for asylum-seekers on municipalities and taxpayers.”

“This administration’s approach to asylum policy seems to be calculated to inflict the most pain on both asylum seekers facing incredible struggles and the communities that take them in, American values be damned,” King said. “This latest proposal is a prime example of this backward process – it’s flat-out bad policy that makes it harder for asylum seekers to contribute to our society and economy while also increasing the financial strain on localities, all at a time when employers are desperate for workers.”

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