Posted on January 28, 2019

Maine’s Largest City Strains Under Asylum-Seeker Influx

Jennifer Levitz, Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2109


But Maine’s largest city, population about 67,000, is now struggling with an influx of asylum seekers, to the point where a local official is alerting shelters in other parts of the country to discourage people from heading here.

“The word is out there that our community is open to that population and has some assistance programs,” said David MacLean, administrator of Portland’s Social Services Division. “Our local resources are not able to keep up.”

Asylum seekers, who are primarily from African countries, now make up 90% of the people living in Portland’s city-run family shelter and overflow shelter, where new arrivals sleep on mats. A city fund that assists with necessities is dwindling fast, and pro-bono lawyers are overwhelmed with cases, Mr. MacLean said.

Portland’s strain comes as the number of asylum requests, in which people ask to be allowed to stay in the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, has ballooned. That is contributing to the well-publicized bottleneck at the Southwest border and the political clash over it.


Legislation recently filed by Democratic state Rep. Michael Brennan would beef up state assistance to asylum seekers. He said it would give them flexibility to settle in other Maine communities that need workers in the fast-aging state.

But Jacob Posik, communications director for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a think tank focused on limited government, cautions public officials not to overpromise.


Jennifer Bailey, the asylum program director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Maine, which works with arrivals, said the migrants in Maine have typically come to the U.S. on visas. She also has seen an uptick of people presenting themselves to officials at the U.S. southern border to ask for asylum.

“We have more cases than we’ve ever had,” she said. “The number of people coming is out of sync with resources.”


Maine, a slow-growing state known for lobsters and long winters, has for years looked to immigrants to boost the workforce and population. Immigrants now work everywhere from seafood plants to machine shops to manufacturing operations and run businesses in Portland, a trendy waterfront locale known nationally for its restaurant scene.

The foreign-born population fueled more than 75% of population growth in Portland and the surrounding area in 2011-16, according to a report co-produced by the city.


David MacLean, administrator of Portland’s Social Services Division, says the city welcomes all immigrants, asylum seekers and individuals with refugee status, but adds he is worried about limited resources.

Asylum seekers, who apply once they are in the U.S., are generally ineligible for federal benefits until they get asylum, and are prohibited from working for at least six months after filing an asylum application. Preparing to file can itself take months because of challenges such as waits for legal help and difficulty getting documents from home countries, said Mr. MacLean, the social-services administrator.

“What we find is that very quickly after they are able to get that work permit, they become self-sufficient,” he said. “The challenge is helping asylum seekers survive during their asylum-seeking process.”

Under Maine law, asylum seekers who have filed an application may qualify for general assistance, for up to 24 months. Funded by the state and municipalities, that program provides vouchers for rent, utilities and other staples.

In Portland, 65% to 70% of the 1,000 people now receiving general assistance are noncitizens, primarily asylum seekers, according to city staff. {snip}

In addition, the city budgets about $200,000 annually to fill in gaps for asylum seekers who don’t qualify for general assistance, such as those who haven’t yet filed an application.