Migrant surge spurs renewed calls to relax work restrictions for asylum seekers

Supporters of a bill to lower the waiting period for work permit eligibility say doing so will...
Supporters of a bill to lower the waiting period for work permit eligibility say doing so will help address Maine’s dire workforce shortage(WMTW)
Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 7:34 AM EDT
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PORTLAND, Maine (WMTW) - Under current law, asylum seekers have to wait a year until they’re eligible for a work permit.

Supporters of a plan to change that rule say that doing so would help address Maine’s dire workforce shortage.

“Because with the labor shortage going on in the state of Maine, we need these people to start working,” said Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

The Immigrant Welcome Center helps new Mainers with a range of services including industry-focused English language learning.

Jalali wants to see the passage of a bill backed by senators Susan Collins and Angus King as well as Rep. Chellie Pingree which would lower the waiting period for a work permit to one month.

“Once they start earning incomes, my assumption is that they would find housing and it would be less of a burden on the municipalities,” Jalali said.

In May, citing a strain on resources, the city of Portland told federal immigration authorities it could no longer guarantee shelter for asylum seekers.

Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of Health and Human Services, said one Tuesday that the city is providing emergency housing to 171 families, totaling 603 individuals, nearly all of them asylum seekers.

“We have about 600 to 800 folks right now being housed in motels and hotels. There are nonprofits that are coordinating this with very limited resources,” said state Rep. Victoria Morales, a Democrat of South Portland.

Morales said there’s an opportunity now to learn from Massachusetts’ recent handling of migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard where the state activated emergency management resources, traditionally thought of as being used in the event of natural disasters.

“They immediately organized their emergency medical system and brought in the support that folks needed in the place where people were going to be housed, including attorneys,” Morales said.

The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which is co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Susan Collins, was introduced in February.

A spokesperson for Collins said Tuesday it is still awaiting consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.