In-Depth: Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced this bill to permit asylum seekers to receive work authorization while their application is being processed. In a meeting with a coalition of Maine mayors in Portland, Maine in which she announced her plans to introduced this legislation, Rep. Pingree said:
“What I heard today from these mayors is that the asylum seekers coming to their communities have opened up many opportunities—from increasing diversity to strengthening the labor force—but also a number of challenges. One of the biggest is that asylum seekers must wait six months before they are eligible to work. My legislation would sharply reduce that period, so they can more quickly support their families and add their skills to Maine’s workforce.”
In a press release discussing an influx of asylum seekers to Portland, Maine, Rep. Pingree said:
“Most of the migrants who have arrived in Portland these past few days have had long, harrowing journeys from conflict-torn countries. These families choose to leave their homes for a reason and are seeking refuge here for the opportunity of a better life. For them, Maine means hope. Portland has long been a welcoming city for immigrants and refugees. We should celebrate that and be supportive in any way possible. It has been heartening to see city leaders and community partners come together so quickly on behalf of these individuals, as they often have before. On the federal level, we need overarching, comprehensive immigration reform. I introduced a bill to allow asylum seekers to gain work and contribute to our local economy quickly, rather than wait 180 days under current law. The United States should be giving newcomers the opportunity to live a safe and fulfilling life."
In an interview with the Portland Press Herald, Rep. Pingree discussed this bill’s necessity in the broader context of helping asylum seekers become productive members of their communities, saying, “This could have an impact on these new asylum seekers, allowing them to work and be self-sufficient through the process of establishing roots in this community.”
During the Trump administration, the current United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) head, Lee Francis Cissna, has sought to recast the agency as a strict enforcer of immigration laws. To this end, in April 2019, the Trump administration proposed an increase in the asylum seeker work authorization waiting period, from the current 180 days to a full year (365 days). The proposal, authored by USCIS officials, took the form of a not-yet finalized regulation. Simultaneously, the agency has been working on a separate proposal to institute a $50 fee for those who file for asylum after entering the U.S.
A senior administration official told Axios that the move reflected the White House’s frustration with granting work permits to asylum seekers soon after their entry into the country, which the administration perceives as “a major draw” for people to cross the border illegally whether or not they have a valid claim for asylum. The official characterized the current 180-day waiting period as “charity toward all, malice toward none.”
Ur Jaddou, former USCIS chief counsel, criticized the proposed increase in work authorization wait time as nonsensical:
“It doesn’t make any sense. If you’re going to say to a person that they will be considered for asylum and they have to wait, how are they going to feed themselves? How are they going to feed their families? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what we want people to do?”
This bill has eight Democratic House cosponsors. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) has indicated that he plans to introduce similar legislation in the Senate but has yet to do so.
Of Note: Under a federal law passed in 1996, asylum seekers can’t work for 180 days after they apply for asylum (they can apply for work authorization 150 days after applying for asylum, and the work authorization then takes 30 days to process). During this time, they have few means to support themselves and their families. In a letter to her Congressional colleagues seeking cosponsors for this bill, Rep. Pingree’s office adds that “[o]ften, because of technical issues and delays in processing work authorization requests, this time period can be much longer” than the 150 days. Her office concludes, “In practical terms, this arbitrary waiting period is denying American businesses access to an able-bodied workforce at a time when they desperately need employees.”
Human Rights First finds that the current work authorization permit wait time “leaves many asylum seekers, who are often traumatized and vulnerable, in precarious situations—homeless, unable to feed themselves and their children, and struggling to get health care.” The organization reports that asylum seekers without means to survive “must rely on friends, family, or local communities for support,” but some who lack support networks suffer abuse and exploitation as undocumented workers while waiting for work authorization. Others become homeless, live in overcrowded or unsafe conditions and go wanting for basic needs such as food and clothing. The organization adds that “[w]ithout work authorization, asylum seekers cannot purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act or obtain a social security number, and often cannot apply for a state-issued identification card or driver’s license, which further limits access to transportation, banking, and private-support services. Lack of income also hinders opportunities to find and retain competent legal counsel.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Andreypopov)