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Pingree re-introduces bill to speed up work permit application process for asylum seekers

Mathieu, a volunteer with the Asylum Application Resource Center, helps a client register for help with her asylum application. Mathieu is himself an asylum seeker from Burundi, and said the clinic helps people overcome logistical barriers like paying for postage and accessing interpreters.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
A volunteer at the Asylum Application Resource Center at the Portland Public Library helps a client fill out paperwork earlier this year. Under law, asylum seekers are not allowed to receive work authorization until at least 180 days after filing a complete asylum application.

Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree re-introduced legislation today that would allow asylum seekers to get work authorization more quickly. A similar bill failed to advance last session, but Pingree, a Democrat, said she’s hopeful this time will be different.

Under current federal law, asylum seekers cannot receive work permits until at least 180 days after they have filed a complete asylum application, and the permits need to be renewed after two years.

Pingree’s bill would cut that wait period to 30 days and eliminate the renewal requirement.

Pingree said those changes would benefit asylum seekers, local governments struggling to support them, and businesses looking for workers.

"It would take the burden of so many of these families who want to be working, want to be providing for their families, and to be out there working at jobs that are already available," she said. "So it just seems like a simple solution to the problem of, 'How do we get more people in the workforce? And how do we make sure that people can get to work as quickly as possible?'"

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, introduced a Senate version of the bill earlier this year, co-sponsored by Maine Sen. Angus King, an Independent. The Senate version also cuts the wait period down to 30 days, but does not eliminate the need to renew work permits after two years.

In a statement, Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors voiced his group's support for the House and Senate bills, saying that "getting asylum seekers to work sooner is key to filling gaps in worker shortages that businesses across Maine have been experiencing for decades."

Pingree's re-introduction of the bill comes as Portland and other communities in Maine are struggling to support hundreds of newly-arrived asylum seekers.

Earlier this week, officials in Portland said the city had received more than 550 asylum seekers since January, and warned that the city was nearing a tipping point where it would no longer be able to provide emergency to shelter to those who need it.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, said the bill "couldn't have come at a better time," citing the high numbers of new arrivals in Portland.

If passed, Chitam said the bill would help new arrivals get on their feet more quickly, reducing strain on aid groups and municipal agencies.

"There's been so much strain on General Assistance, as we have seen in municipalities don't have the budget," she said.

Pingree introduced a similar bill last year, but it failed to advance. She said she's hopeful this time could be different.

"This year, where there's more asylum seekers in more communities than there have been before, I might have an opportunity to find more colleagues who are experiencing the same challenges in their home community," Pingree said.

The bill will need at least some bipartisan support to pass in the GOP-controlled House.