Maine lawmakers are asking for a federal waiver that would allow newly arrived asylum seekers to go to work right away rather than wait six months, a largely symbolic gesture that has won support from both political parties, employers and immigrant groups.

This proposed emergency legislative resolve would direct the Maine Department of Labor to request a federal waiver from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granting presumptive work eligibility to asylum seekers even though no such waiver process exists.

Asylum seekers are served a meal at Salvation Army in Portland on March 7. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But a little symbolism can go a long way, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Androscoggin, said Tuesday.

“Some have questioned whether the federal government will even accept a request for waiver of the work prohibition,” Brakey said during testimony on L.D. 1050, which he sponsored. “I say send the request anyway … The more states demonstrate demand for waivers, the more it raises the issue in Congress.”

The symbolism worked its political magic in Augusta, too, winning over the leaders of both parties in the House, Sen. Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, and the first Somali Americans to serve in the Maine Legislature, Rep. Mana Abdi, D-Lewiston, and Rep. Deca Dhalic, D-South Portland.

The Labor and Housing Committee was so enchanted with this gesture that it voted to close the hearing, add an emergency preamble to L.D. 1050, which means that it would go into effect upon passage instead of 90 days after the session ends in June, and then voted 7-0 to endorse the bill itself.


It is rare for a legislative committee to hold a public hearing on a bill and then vote on it the same day.

Maine is looking for help to provide better services to the growing number of asylum seekers coming into the state. Statistics about this influx of new Mainers can be difficult to track, lawmakers learned Tuesday, but records show Portland alone has welcomed 743 people since Jan. 1.

Asylum seekers are prevented by federal law from immediately seeking work to support themselves and their families, so many rely on public assistance programs that are straining to keep up with a surge of new arrivals this winter.

It would be easier to track the impacts of this wave and organize Maine’s response if host municipalities could go to a single state office to get information about the best ways to deliver services to new Mainers and the resources available to fund those services, said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford.

Bennett has introduced a bill, L.D. 787, to fund a resident service coordination office in the Department of Economic and Community Development that would “coordinate municipal efforts to connect persons who have recently moved to the state with housing and job opportunities.”

The two-person office would cost $255,000 in the next fiscal year, with costs rising to $305,000 in 2027.


The Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business held a short hearing on the bill Tuesday afternoon. It only drew two speakers, including Bennett, but written testimony shows support from communities hosting asylum seekers.

Allowing asylum seekers to work sooner than federal law allows has been a perennial issue for local cities and towns since asylees began coming to Portland and surrounding communities about a decade ago.

Maine’s congressional delegation has pushed for changes in the asylum policy, but they failed to gain traction. However, both U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, have each reintroduced similar bills that would reduce that waiting time to 30 days.

A mother walks her two children across the street to Pastor Placido Mowa’s home in Portland where they sleep on the floor in the basement on February 9. Mowa is one of a handful of local pastors who have offered to take in asylum seekers at night because of the lack of space in the shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Eliminating the six-month work prohibition would mean an asylum seeker’s first stop upon completing an application for asylum could be a job fair instead of a welfare office, Brakey said. Mainers may be divided over asylum seekers’ right to welfare benefits, but everyone agrees on their right to work, he said.

Southern states will never agree to a wholesale rewrite of the federal policy because they believe immediate work eligibility would only increase the number of people coming to the country illegally, but a regional carveout for New England states might be tolerable for them, Brakey said.

“This one-size-fits-all policy based on the situation of southern states has contributed to economic chaos in Maine where we are denying people who are ready to work, we’ve got open positions we’d love to have them work,” Brakey said. “Instead we are putting them on our state welfare rolls.”


That is not where asylees want to be, said Ninette Irabaruta, director of public policy and advocacy at the United Way of Southern Maine. At the age of 21, Irabaruta fled political unrest in her native Burundi and sought asylum in Maine in 2012.

“Most of the asylees who come here want to work and start providing for their families right away,” said Irabaruta. “This is a win-win for the Maine economy. There is a huge workforce shortage in our state. We have the unique opportunity to use the needed skills asylum seekers bring with them.”

Employers ranging from wild blueberry farmers to restaurants to innkeepers testified in favor of the bill in hopes that a waiver request could push Washington, D.C., into freeing up asylum seekers to fill their work vacancies.

“If this bill were to allow asylum seekers to go to work tomorrow, I would have gotten every one of my 1,200 members to line up outside,” said Nate Cloutier, director of governmental affairs for Hospitality Maine. “They’ll take anybody with a heartbeat at this point just to keep the doors open.”

Julie Ann Smith of the Maine Farm Bureau told lawmakers that agriculture is desperate for workers.

“Farmers in Maine would be very grateful for the opportunity to have asylum seekers join their farms,” Smith said. “We typically have housing available. It is an excellent opportunity for non-English speakers. Planting a seed is the same in any language.”


Some lawmakers initially seemed skeptical of Brakey’s motivations, asking him if the bill was intended to turn asylum seekers away from Maine. In past legislative sessions, Brakey has spoken out against the cost of giving welfare benefits to new Mainers and the financial strain it puts upon the state.

He said he looked at the right for asylum seekers to work as more of a carrot than a stick.

“We’re human beings, we respond to incentives,” Brakey said. “I would rather incentivize people to come who are coming to work, put into the economy, and make Maine a better place than incentivize people to come and only allow them to collect a welfare check.”

The Mills administration took a neutral position on Brakey’s bill. Labor Commissioner Lauran Fortman noted in written testimony that the six-month wait was codified in federal law and “there is no waiver for this provision.” No one from the department was present for the hearing or work session.

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