Maine businesses have job openings that need to be filled and asylum seekers are eager to get to work.
But federal law requires asylum seekers to wait 180 days before they can get a work permit.
First District Rep. Chellie Pingree is working, once again, to cut that wait time to 30 days to help those who want to work and those who need workers, she told the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce on Friday.
“They are desperate to go to work,” she said. “Many of them have high levels of skills and education.”
Since the beginning of the year, Maine has welcomed more than 1,000 asylum seekers, many of whom are living in the greater Portland area.
Current federal law, passed in 1996, requires asylum seekers to wait at least six months before they can get authorization to work, according to Pingree’s office. And because of backlogs and delays, the period is often much longer.
Her proposal would allow them to apply for work authorization 30 days after they apply for asylum.
The measure is supported by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and several immigrant rights groups.
“Time and time again we hear from asylum seekers telling us how badly they want to find work in order to provide for themselves and their families,” Tobin Williamson of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said in March when Pingree announced the bill. “They do not come to the U.S. to seek donated clothing and shelter beds. They want to contribute to our economy and make a new home here.”
Pingree, a Democrat, is hoping the country has hit a tipping point with asylum seekers now moving to places like New York City and Denver. She recently added a Republican co-sponsor to the bill, Rep. Maria Salazar of Florida, and a similar measure has been introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
While it seems like a simple fix, Pingree said the bill taps into the country’s larger debate over immigration and the perception that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans.
“There’s this ideological prejudice against doing anything about immigration,” she said. “The first thing they always say is ‘well this is somebody who’s going to take your job.’ I don’t hear this in Maine. This is Washington.”
Brit Vitalius, chamber vice-president, said asylum seekers present an opportunity to help businesses struggling to find workers.
“We know that these individuals represent an economic imperative for our region,” he said.
He said there aren’t enough workers to build needed housing or to keep local sandwich shops open.
“It’s ridiculous,” Pingree said. “It’s holding back our economy. We have to remember, we’re a country of immigrants. This is truly one of those things where Washington has it wrong.”