PORTLAND – In the middle of the night, Rodolphe Houanche’s wife shook him awake because shots had been fired at their home.

They hustled everyone downstairs and eventually turned on all the lights, revealing that no one was within the high wall protecting their house. Still, Houanche knew what the shots meant.

“That’s a signal,” he explained recently. “When they do that to you, you know they are coming for you.”

Soon after that incident in 2005, Houanche left his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and arrived in Maine, where his two brothers were living. With the help of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, he was granted asylum in the United States, and his wife and two children were later able to join him.

The Portland-based nonprofit organization is now working to meet increased demand from asylum seekers — those who seek protection in the United States because of persecution or fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a social group.

The organization, which serves low-income Mainers from all parts of the state, saw demand for asylum assistance increase by 400 percent or more between 2009 and 2010, or from roughly 100 cases to about 400. As a result, it had to stop accepting cases in March 2010.

Houanche’s case was a little unusual in that he was seeking protection from a group that the Haitian government could not control, rather than the government itself.

When the shots were fired at his home in 2005, Houanche was working as a lawyer and living in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. But he had formerly been a high-ranking police official under the auspices of the United Nations, working in the northern city of Gonaives. There, he had ordered the arrest of Amiot “Cubain” Metayer, the leader of a powerful gang called the Cannibal Army.

Metayer was dead by the night of the shooting at Houanche’s home. But the country was still in a period of unrest following uprisings that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Metayer’s followers had the freedom to pursue their enemies and Houanche had already lost friends to such reprisals.

Houanche, who had already escaped two kidnapping attempts, reported the shooting to police in the morning. They could do nothing for him, Houanche recalled, and asked him whether he had a visa and relatives outside the country.

It’s not clear what’s driving the recent local surge of asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. The spike locally does not mirror national trends, where asylum applications have fallen nearly 16 percent, or from roughly 44,000 to 37,000, over the past five years.

“Anecdotally, comparable organizations are not seeing the extreme kind of uptick we are seeing in these applications,” said interim Executive Director Hayden Anderson.

“We have some ideas about it. Over the years, these immigrant communities have grown up, and I think there gets to be a tipping point, where suddenly there’s enough of a population center that gives people even more reason to come to Portland.”

The organization has a success rate of about 97 percent, Anderson said. A Syracuse University study found an 11 percent rate for asylum seekers overall, most of whom are unrepresented, and a 54 percent rate for those with lawyers, he said.

Anderson attributes the difference to the hard work of the lawyers working with the organization, the support the organization provides them and a thorough screening process for the cases it accepts.

“We have a nose for which ones are strong and which ones are less strong,” he said. “The demand is so high and the attorney time that is being donated is so very valuable, we want to make sure we’re not wasting any of our pro bono time on weak cases.”  

In June, Noel Young joined the organization as its asylum coordinator attorney and brought the size of the current staff to 10. In addition to handling a few cases of her own, she’s responsible for training and overseeing the work of the pro bono panel that handles the bulk of the organization’s asylum cases.

She has been working on recruiting additional lawyers with the aim of increasing the number of active ones on the panel to about 80, up from the current range of about 25 to 40. She plans to provide training this fall, but there isn’t yet a target date for accepting new cases again.

The work is time-consuming. It can take 100 hours to prepare a client’s case to present to an immigration official, Young said, and much more time if the client isn’t granted asylum at that level and the case is referred to the immigration court. When an applicant is successful, there may then be work to reunite the client with family and to gain permanent residency, a necessary step for gaining citizenship.

“Your asylum clients, they become part of your life,” Young said. “I and other pro bono attorneys have been invited to college graduations and weddings. They become part of your family.”

Houanche’s case was assigned to Jennifer Archer of the Portland law firm Kelly, Remmel & Zimmerman. They worked together for about five months to put together his under-oath statement to present to the immigration officer in Boston.

They had to collect documents and other evidence — some sent to the United States by relatives in Haiti — to corroborate Houanche’s case.

Those included items such as paperwork substantiating his employment history, photos of him in his police uniform, the police report of the shooting incident and news articles about the political situation.

Archer, who is on the organization’s board, said that although she hasn’t yet had an asylum case denied, the outcome is unpredictable.

“But I never once questioned what Rodolphe was telling me,” she said. “So I had confidence in his truthfulness and his consistency.”

Since his arrival in Maine, Houanche, now 45, has bolstered the English he learned in Haiti with classes at Portland Adult Education and earned a commercial driver’s license. He’s now working as a driver for a construction company.

After a separation of three years, Houanche was reunited with his wife, Arave, and their children — Ralph and Annah, who now attend Portland High School.

He’s thankful to Archer, the organization and everyone else who helped them get to where they are.

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of research. So if you don’t work with your heart, it will be hard,” he said. “First of all, you have to make yourself in that person’s shoes.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be

contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com