Posted on January 31, 2019

Asylum Seekers Travel to Portland in Droves, Overwhelming City Services

Randy Billings, Press Herald, December 24, 2018

A growing number of families are attempting to flee violence and persecution in sub-Saharan Africa by embarking on a long, difficult and dangerous journey through South and Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the southern U.S. border and asking for asylum.

And many of those who succeed are choosing the same unlikely final destination: Portland, Maine.

About three or four families from African countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo arrive at Portland’s Family Shelter each week after crossing the southern U.S. border, according to David MacLean, the city’s social services director. And many more who have crossed the border but remain in Texas, either being processed in detention centers or staying in temporary shelters, are seeking to get here, according to MacLean and an advocate who runs a shelter near the southern border.

Portland is attracting the newcomers in part, at least, because the city and state are among the few that offer shelter and financial assistance to the immigrants while their asylum cases are being processed.

The arrival of so many asylum seekers in need of support and basic necessities has overwhelmed local services, including the city’s emergency shelter for homeless families. Families are now filling overflow spaces, sleeping on floor mats in a converted gymnasium and cafeteria. Those arriving through the southern border have added to an increased number of other asylum seekers, forcing the city to add staffing and using up funds set aside for basic assistance.

Immigration advocates say there are not enough volunteer attorneys to keep up with the swelling caseload, causing some desperate asylum seekers to jeopardize their applications by relying on other immigrants to help with the complicated legal process.


The city has been getting calls from detention centers and shelters in Texas about people planning to come here because they heard it was a good place for asylum seekers. Portland’s staff usually tries to explain to officials in Texas that the city only provides emergency services, not a formal asylum assistance program.


While there are no reliable data to measure the trend, an examination of Portland’s shelter numbers, a recent count of asylum applications and interviews with city officials and immigration advocates in Portland and Texas suggest there are roughly 3,000 asylum seekers in Maine, with the vast majority in the Portland area. All agree the number has reached an unprecedented level.



Portland has been a destination for asylum seekers from Africa and other regions for years.

In the past, however, asylum seekers more typically came directly to the United States using temporary visas, such as those issued to tourists, students or workers, and then applying for permission to stay. Advocates say such visas, especially for entire families, have become harder to come by under the Trump administration, which has used a series of executive orders and policy changes to restrict legal immigration.

Deteriorating conditions in African countries experiencing civil war, genocide and political violence are causing desperate families to take more risks in order to escape, said Anna Welch, a Sam L. Cohen refugee and human rights clinical professor at the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Maine School of Law.


The challenges do not end when the families arrive.

Asylum cases that begin with an entry through the southern border are more challenging legally than cases involving visa holders, because the applicants must defend themselves in court against deportation, rather than making an affirmative asylum claim. Advocates say there aren’t enough attorneys to handle all of the cases.

In addition, unlike refugees who come to the United States with federal resettlement funds and support, asylum seekers are on their own to find food and housing, as well as legal assistance and other services. Asylum seekers also are not allowed to work for at least six months while waiting for their cases to be decided.

It can take months or years for an asylum applicant to get the documentation he or she needs to fill out the application, which must be done in English, and then years more before the application is processed.


One thing is clear – word has gotten out about Portland.

Portland has a history of promoting itself as a compassionate and welcoming community for immigrants. It fought successfully to make some noncitizens eligible for state and local assistance, set up an unusual municipal fund to help those who do not qualify, and created a special city office to help integrate new Mainers into the workforce and community. City leaders also are considering a proposal to allow noncitizen residents to vote in municipal elections.

“I’m very comfortable and proud of the rules we have in the city of Portland, which state very clearly we’re a welcoming community,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said. “Our issue isn’t that too many people are coming here – it’s we don’t have the housing to put them in.”


It’s not only the assistance that makes Portland a desirable destination. The city now has established communities of families from Africa and other parts of the world, some of whom moved to Portland from larger U.S. cities because of its low crime rate and a community of people with shared languages and cultural identities.



But the demand for beds in Portland’s Family Shelter helps tell the story because many asylum seekers arrive with no resources and report to the shelter upon their arrival, officials say. The inflow of families led to record numbers of people seeking refuge in the city’s emergency shelters over the summer, and the trend has only continued.


The surge has pushed the total number of people using Portland’s family shelter on a single night in December from 106 five years ago to 215 this year. And more than 90 percent of the total family shelter population are now asylum seekers.


Jennifer Bailey, the asylum director of the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to immigrants, said the agency recently learned from immigration officials that Maine had at least 3,000 asylum cases pending. {snip}

A large percentage of cases are being filed without legal representation, based on data compiled by Syracuse University about immigration cases, including asylum applications.



On recent nights, the family shelter has filled to its capacity of 151 people. An additional 75 or more people, including young children, have been sleeping on thin mats placed on the floor at two overflow locations.

City officials say they have invested about $108,000 in roughly a dozen permanent and as-needed staff members to help meet that demand. The staff sets up those spaces each night and then breaks them down each morning so the rooms can again be used as a gymnasium and dining room.

Families who are forced to sleep in the overflow spaces cannot stay during the days and spend time in warming shelters, eating at soup kitchens and struggling to find good legal advice.

A lack of affordable housing is keeping people in the shelters for longer periods. Families now spend an average of three months in the shelter before securing housing. That’s an increase from an average stay of two months five years ago and three weeks in 2006.


In September, 273 asylum seekers received an average of $460 each in General Assistance support, according to the city. Because asylum seekers are not allowed to work for an extended period, they typically need about twice as much assistance as other recipients of the aid, according to the city.


City officials say that other immigrants who originally came to the United States with temporary visas also are moving to the city in larger numbers. And some of them are relying on a separate city assistance fund set up to support noncitizens who are not eligible for state General Assistance because they have not yet formally filed asylum applications.

The City Council allocated $200,000 to that fund for the current fiscal year, which began in July. But nearly half of that money was used up in the first three months, and spending has continued at an unprecedented rate, according to city officials.



Meanwhile, the shortage of pro bono attorneys to handle asylum claims may also compound the pressures on public assistance.


Prospects for increased state aid may be higher with Democrats about to take over state government, but it’s unclear how soon relief may come. And if the city begins running over its budget, Jennings said the City Council may have to intervene.

The strain on public resources also is leading to questions about the city’s policies and whether it should bear the burden alone.

City Councilor Kimberly Cook is hoping the city will review its social service policies, especially given that Portland is providing a regional, national and, in some cases, international service. With Maine being the oldest and one of the whitest states in the nation, Cook supports immigration as a way to solve the state’s demographic and workforce challenges, noting that many asylum seekers are educated professionals.

But Cook said the city needs to discuss how much of a burden should be placed on local taxpayers, especially because only a third of the people staying at Portland’s adult shelter are former Portland residents and more than 90 percent of the people staying at the family shelter are noncitizens. {snip}


As crowded as the city’s shelter system is now, the wave of in-migration does not appear to be ending.