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Maine could let asylum seekers work earlier than the rest of the nation

Republican Senator Eric Brakey authored the bill which would push for asylum seekers to work while their application is being processed. It has bipartisan support.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If Republican Sen. Eric Brakey's bill LD 1050 is passed without much change, it would have the State of Maine ask the federal government to be the sole exception to national law.

As it stands, people claiming asylum in the United States must wait 180 days or longer for their application to be processed. If the federal government does grant Maine that exemption, it would allow asylum seekers in the state to start working while their application is being processed.

The difference would mean hundreds of new Mainers contributing income, Brakey said.

"It's just better for society all around when people are putting in and allowed to contribute," Brakey said. "That's why we are asking for a federal waiver from the federal government."

As a Republican, Brakey said he hasn't seen many in his party or across the aisle opposed to letting asylum seekers work while their application is being processed.

The Immigration Legal Advocacy Project said federal action needs to happen first

"Immigration is controlled by federal law, and ILAP's understanding is that current law would prohibit the option of a waiver as is being discussed in the Maine Legislature," ILAP representatives said in a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine.

The organization said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree's proposal last year would do more. Pingree's proposal didn't make it to a vote. She reintroduced the bill on March 1, according to a news release.

Pingree's proposal would have brought the length of application review from 180 days to just 30.

"I'm glad that the Maine legislature is looking for innovative, bipartisan solutions to this challenge," Pingree said in a statement. "While no federal waiver currently exists to allow new arrivals to work, that's not a reason for state leaders to stop striving toward a solution." 

"The House version of the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization act would be the most effective way to help asylum seekers obtain work permits and avoid gaps in work authorization given USCIS delays, help Maine businesses to hire much-needed workers, and free up resources in municipalities and nonprofit organizations," the statement went on to say.

Brakey said these next work sessions are designed to refine the details of how the state will ask the federal government for a waiver. He said it's worth a shot.

"I think that is beside the point. I think we should send a request one way or another. This one size fits all approach here in Maine isn't working out, and it's creating chaos," Brakey said.

Democrat lawmakers support Brakey's bill, including freshman Rep. Mana Abdi of Lewiston.

"There are a lot of residents who are asylum seekers in my district," Abdi said. "Any effort is better than nothing."

Abdi said despite the uncertainty, if the federal government would grant a waiver, it's worth it.

"It's better than sitting and looking at each other saying, 'It is what it is.' I think this is a faithful effort to see what we can do," Rep Abdi said.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross is also a supporter of the bill, along with Representative and former South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac.

"Adjusting the waiting period for asylum seekers will enable more families and give back to Maine's economy," Dhalac said in a statement. "Stifling asylum seekers' ability to access work not only holds them back from starting a new life. It also robs the state of badly needed talent and skills during a time when workforce shortages are so acute."

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