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PORTLAND — While admitting the odds of passage may be long, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he wants to reform federal immigration rules that prevent asylum seekers from working.
“The chances are it is going to take a lot of work,” King said July 31 in front of City Hall.
The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act introduced July 30 by King would reduce the mandatory waiting period for work authorization for asylum seekers from 150 days to 30 days. He said the legislation would help resolve a labor crunch in Maine, and help asylum seekers get on their feet quickly.
“The best social program is a job,” King said. “We need it, they need it. Putting it together makes all the sense in the world.
Asylum seekers, unlike refugees, must apply to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for permission to stay in the country, a process that than can take five years or more.
The waiting period for work was instituted in 1996, King said, and also has an additional 30-day approval period, leaving asylum seekers unable to legally work for at least 180 days.
Claude Rwaganje, who now directs the Community Financial Literacy center on Cumberland Avenue, said it took him a year to get authorization to work. He arrived in the U.S. 18 years ago after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I was so excited I was jumping up and down,” he said about King’s bill.
Also speaking with King at the press conference was Philemon Dushimire, who left the central African nation of Burundi in 2010. In Burundi, he practiced law. When first in Maine, he waited and did volunteer work.
“If this law was enacted, I would have been able to support myself and not rely as much on General Assistance,” Dushimire said.
When he received his work authorization in 2012, Dushimire said he began working in health care and will now pursue an advanced degree at the University of Maine.
“I am grateful, and I hope future asylum seekers can have the same opportunities I have – just without having to encounter so many obstacles along the way,” he said.
King said the change could have been part of larger immigration reform efforts that passed the U.S. Senate two years ago, but never made the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Now he is ready to take a piecemeal approach, because the economic benefits are there for businesses and individuals.
“We have an economic catastrophe staring us in the face,” King said about shortages in the state work force.
Mayor Michael Brennan and Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, agreed with King, saying the most common lament they hear when talking to businesses owners is the lack of skilled workers.
“This is about creating opportunities to work,” Brennan said.
Hall said labor shortages are not a new topic.
“But they are an increasingly urgent topic,” he said. “I hear from employers in the greater Portland region every day who tell me that they need more workers, and right here, there are people who want to work.”
King said he has not sought co-sponsors for the bill, but did inform Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, when he filed it.
“We like to try and not surprise each other,” he said.
The reduced waiting period could also reduce the expense of providing General Assistance vouchers to asylum seekers for housing, medical, food and personal care items.
Asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants, who are ineligible for federal social programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, were ruled ineligible for state General Assistance aid in June 2014 by state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
The city continued to provide vouchers at an annual cost of $4.1 million. On July 27, city councilors approved the provisions for a one-year, $2.6 million program to continue to provide aid for those who were getting General Assistance aid in June.
The Legislature approved a bill to allow two years worth of General Assistance to asylum seekers, but LD 369 is among the bills locked up in the fight between the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage over whether his vetoes were valid.
LePage has sought an opinion from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which heard arguments July 31, and is expected to issue an opinion this month.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, greets Burundian native Philemon Dushimire July 31 at Portland City Hall. On July 30, King introduced legislation to reduce the time asylum seekers like Dushimire must wait to obtain work authorization.