December 04, 2019
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Making asylum seekers wait longer to work is misguided policy

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Thierry Malasa pauses while describing the harrowing journey that led his family from the Congo to Maine, as the family prepared to move out of the Portland Expo, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in Portland, Maine.

A Trump administration proposal, which would double the amount of time that asylum seekers must wait in order to be able to work here in the U.S. from 180 days to at least a full year, is completely backward.

“The integrity and preservation of the U.S. asylum system takes precedence over potential economic hardship faced by alien arrivals who enjoy no legal status in the United States, whether or not those aliens may later be found to have meritorious claims,” the proposal from the Department of Homeland Security says.

Making these people wait even longer to be able to start working will create more reliance on government and charitable assistance when asylum policies should be promoting self-sufficiency. It is also counterproductive at a time when many states, including Maine, need new workers to fill jobs.

Currently, asylum seekers must wait 150 days before applying for permission to work, and the government must wait an additional 30 days before granting that authorization. The DHS proposal would require asylum seekers to wait a full year before applying for employment authorization.

“More than doubling the time asylum seekers must wait from 150 days to 365 days would cause unnecessary strain on local and state resources, do nothing to address Maine’s workforce shortages, and deliberately punish people who believed our nation’s laws and international commitments would protect those fleeing persecution and violence,” Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement this week.

Pingree has introduced legislation that would reduce the work waiting period to 30 days, a sensible approach that recognizes the economic and humanitarian realities of the situation. Sen. Angus King previously endorsed the approach in 2015 but has not reintroduced that legislation in the Senate.

In a statement, King similarly criticized the DHS proposal as “flat-out bad policy that makes it harder for asylum seekers to contribute to our society and economy” and strains localities at a time that employers need workers.

“I’m still actively listening to Maine people and policy experts on the most appropriate, effective way to handle work permit applications for asylum seekers — but I know for sure that this isn’t it,” King added about DHS’s potential rule change.

Anna Welch, who leads the University of Maine School of Law’s refugee and human rights clinic, estimated in an interview with Maine Public that there are 5,000-7,000 asylum seekers here in the state.

“We have businesses in Maine that are shutting down because we can’t find workers for them, so, again, this could be incredibly impactful to our state workforce,” Welch said.

The office of Gov. Janet Mills also highlighted the workforce implications of the flawed DHS proposal.

“Maine is confronting a tight labor market and the key to solving it is engaging all skilled and work-ready adults, including immigrants, to ensure they are able to join our workforce and contribute to our economy,” Lindsay Crete, a Mills spokesperson, said in a statement this week. “This proposed rule will make it more difficult for Maine businesses to hire the people they so badly need and hamper — not help — Maine’s ability to solve our workforce issues.”

International immigrants, including asylum seekers, are not going to solve Maine’s workforce and demographic challenges alone. These populations are just one piece of the in-migration puzzle as the state works to attract more workers, and complications such as language barriers and mismatching in credentials from their home countries can make it a less than smooth transition.

There are challenges, surely. But policies like this proposed work authorization rule from the Trump administration are, at a minimum, counterproductive — not only by keeping potential labor out of the workforce, but by preventing asylum seekers from making their own way rather than turning to public assistance.

In this regard, the Trump administration’s previous asylum efforts are telling, particularly when coupled with its move to dramatically reduce the number of refugees who are admitted into the country. So it’s not hard to imagine this work authorization change as an attempt to undermine, rather than preserve, the asylum system.

Instead of increasing this work authorization waiting period, the sensible thing to do — particularly from a fiscal responsibility standpoint, but also from a humanitarian one — is to reduce it so that asylum seekers going through a legally prescribed verification process have an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, while contributing to the economy, rather than relying on assistance from others.



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