By Kathreen Harrison

The asylum seekers who entered Maine over the summer after fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries have not been allowed to get a job yet because of federal rules associated with seeking asylum that require a waiting period of 150 days after you apply for asylum before receiving work papers. As a result – and at a time when Maine employers are hungry for workers – the hundreds of adult migrants, many of whom have advanced degrees and years of professional experience behind them and are eager to work so they can support their families, have been forced to rely on the charity of others. Now the Trump administration has proposed rule changes that would make it even harder for asylum seekers to start paying their own way.

One new rule would charge each applicant $50 when they file for asylum. At present, according to the Department of Homeland Security, only three countries – Iran, Fiji, and Australia – require asylum seekers to pay a fee. The Trump administration apparently wants to play copycat with these three countries and separate itself from the vast majority of countries that do not charge asylum seekers a fee.

A second rule change would lengthen the waiting period before an applicant can apply for work papers from 150 days to 365 days after their asylum application has been filed. This could have far-reaching effects on the asylum-seeking families that have come to Maine, as well as the communities that are supporting them.

“This proposed rule would put additional financial demands on our organizations and community members who currently support asylum seekers with very limited resources. So extending the work permit wait period to 365 days would put a huge strain on our support systems and prolong asylum seekers’ integration and full participation in our communities. How can families survive for that long with no income?” asked Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, who has been working to help the asylum seekers since June 9
Photo | Tom BellHow can families survive for that long with no income?” asked Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree introduced a very different proposal, The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, on May 16. That Act seeks to reduce the waiting period to 30 days, which would have the opposite effect from the Trump administration’s proposal, and allow asylum seekers to become self-sufficient more quickly than they can now, and decrease their reliance on General Assistance and the charity of strangers. Congresswoman Pingree believes the Act would also improve the access employers have to an able-bodied workforce at a time when the U.S. is experiencing historically low unemployment levels. The Act, which had seven original cosponsors – Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Jim McGovern, Jan Schakowsky, Veronica Escobar, and Jesus Garcia, with Representative Mark Pocan signing on as a cosponsor on June 19 – was referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship on June 26 and remains in the first stage of the legislative process.

Congresswoman Pingree

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) executive summary of the new rules makes clear that the administration does not trust the motives behind the applications for work papers by asylum seekers, saying the new rules ‘…seek to reduce incentives for aliens to file frivolous, fraudulent, or otherwise nonmeritorious asylum applications to obtain employment authorization … DHS also seeks to reduce incentives for aliens to intentionally delay asylum proceedings in order to extend the period of employment authorization based on the pending application filed by asylum applicants …’

Warsan Shire, British novelist of Somali descent, has written, No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.The journey to Maine was perilous for most of the asylum-seekers who have made their way to Maine, not one anyone would take on unless the alternative of staying put was worse – almost like fleeing the mouth of a shark. The majority of asylum seekers who arrived last summer came in family groups, with young children in tow. Most are from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, and flew to South America to escape violence and persecution back home before traveling – often on foot – through many countries over a period of months, before reaching the southern border of the United States. The majority speaks Portuguese, French, or Lingala, and had little English when they first arrived. Now many have a good start on English, with the children rapidly acquiring the language of their American peers.  Most traveled from the Southern border to Portland by bus, arriving exhausted and traumatized.

Maine has welcomed asylum seekers for many years. According to the Portland General Assistance Office, 1333 individuals had asylum claims pending in 2017  and 962 individuals had asylum claims pending in 2018. Many prominent citizens originally arrived in Maine seeking asylum, including Claude Rwaganje,

Claude Rwaganje, Executive Director of ProsperityME and Westbrook City Councilor

recently elected to City Council in Westbrook, and Georges Budagu Makoko, publisher of Amjambo Africa. After getting their feet on the ground, asylum seekers get jobs, pay taxes, and begin contributing to life in their new country.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, ‘at the end of 2018, there were approximately 3.5 million people around the world waiting for a decision on their asylum claims.’ The American Immigration Council states that ‘Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.” A refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” As a signatory to the 1967 Protocol, and through U.S. immigration law, the United States has legal obligations to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees. The Refugee Act established two paths to obtain refugee status—either from abroad as a resettled refugee or in the United States as an asylum seeker.

The new rules proposed by the Trump administration were published in the Federal Register on November 14. Public comment is open for the fee increase rule through December 16, 2019, and for the rule increasing the waiting period for asylum seekers to apply for work authorization through January 13, 2020.

The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), issued this statement about the proposed rule changes: ILAP is extremely concerned about both of these proposed rule changes. The proposed rules are yet another attempt by the Administration to make it harder for people to apply for asylum or to support themselves during the process. These new rules would place additional hardship on people who have fled violence and persecution, by adding new fees and decreasing the ability to work. It will be important to have many people submit comments opposing these rules. We will provide more information on how to submit comments to oppose these rule changes.” 

According to ILAP, these are some of the most concerning changes in the proposed rule:

  •         Asylum seekers would have to wait for one year (365 days) after filing their asylum application before they could apply for a work permit. The waiting period is now 150 days.
  •         Asylum seekers who cross the border illegally without going through a border patrol station would be ineligible for a work permit. This would put an extreme hardship on asylum seekers who will be waiting for years while their cases are processed in immigration court without the ability to work.
  •         Asylum seekers who miss the one year filing deadline for asylum would not be eligible for a work permit.
  •         Asylum seekers with some criminal charges or convictions might not be eligible for a work permit.

ILAP emphasizes that the proposed rule changes are not yet in effect and says that applicants should not rush to submit an application (especially an asylum application) if they  are not sure the application is properly completed.