The LePage administration’s ongoing war on Maine’s poor is continuing to play out, and immigrants are at great risk of becoming the latest casualties.
Last month, Maine’s cities and towns were ordered to stop granting General Assistance to people who are not yet citizens. Any communities that ignore the policy change, according to Gov. LePage, will no longer receive state General Assistance reimbursement. Portland and other Maine cities have resisted the directive; the attorney general has questioned its constitutionality, and the Maine Municipal Association is suing to get a court ruling on whether the move is legal.
Regardless of their stance, though, everyone involved in the issue seems to have accepted Gov. LePage’s characterization of noncitizens as rulebreakers. But those who the governor calls “illegals” are actually people who are here legally, facing persecution at home and seeking the government’s permission to stay through the courts.
The real crime is the amount of time these asylum seekers spend in legal limbo when they could be contributing to society. Maine’s government should recognize that if it pushes for speedier federal action, everyone in Maine – wherever they were born – would benefit.
Asylum seekers come to the U.S. on short-term visas, and in order to stay, they must prove that if they went home, they’d be targeted for detention, torture or other forms of persecution. Once an asylum applicant arrives here, they have a year to file a complex application that includes a detailed personal statement and documents backing up their story. Then there’s a hearing before a federal asylum officer; if their application is turned down, they can file an appeal, which is heard by a civil immigration judge.
An applicant can’t get a work permit for at least six months after they get to the United States. Even then, it can be hard for people to secure suitable, long-term employment in the U.S. when they don’t know whether they can stay here. And while their application is pending, they’re not eligible for federal benefits. Hence, the need among asylum seekers in Maine for state-funded, locally administered General Assistance vouchers for food, housing, medication and heating oil.
But throughout the asylum process – the application, the hearing and the appeal – the person seeking asylum is here legally in the eyes of the federal government. That’s been U.S. policy since 1951, when the country signed a U.N. treaty stating that anyone who crosses the border and appears to be in danger can’t be sent back until they’ve had a chance to make their case for staying.
It can take four to six years for an asylum applicant’s fate to be decided, and the average wait for a hearing is 19 months. If Maine’s government seriously wants to cut the amount of money it spends on emergency aid to asylum seekers, it would press the federal government to expedite asylum decisions, which would put those granted asylum in a position to get better jobs. Top priorities should include more asylum officers and judges to clear the backlogged immigration courts, and more federal funding for free legal aid to help asylum seekers navigate the system.
The U.S. asylum process is based on the idea that everybody has the right to flee persecution, and the LePage administration can’t stop the flow of asylum seekers to Maine by barring them from getting emergency aid. Instead, it’s time to start looking at how best to enable them to become productive U.S. citizens and Maine residents.