If you want to see the end result of a broken immigration system and a failure of American leadership, look no further than the city of Portland’s family shelter.

The shelter is now overflowing with family of asylum seekers, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, where conflict has driven a record number of people from their homes.

Those families would have once come to the United States as official refugees, with the resettlement program to support them. Or they would have traveled here on visas before applying for affirmative asylum, giving them a better shot at obtaining asylum and, thus, the right to work to support themselves.

Instead, with those avenues largely cut off by the Trump administration, they are sleeping on mats in a converted gym and cafeteria.


And that’s only after the long and perilous trip from Africa, by plane, boat, bus and foot, thousands of miles through South and Central America to the southern U.S. border, then all the way to Portland.


They come to Portland because there are strong African communities there already, and because the city and state offer financial assistance that others do not. Here, asylum seekers are eligible for the same General Assistance as citizens; in September, the city of Portland paid out an average of $460 for each of 273 asylum seekers, money that goes directly to essentials such as rent, heat and medicine.

Long term, the money is a good investment that will help all Mainers by fueling economic growth.

But until then, meeting their needs is a challenge for one city. There are now 199 noncitizens seeking shelter in Portland, 126 of whom came up through the southern border. Five years ago, just 61 noncitizens were seeking shelter, and none had come through Mexico, a reflection of the recent changes in immigration policy.

While that’s still just a fraction of the total asylum seekers in Maine – there are an estimated 3,000, the vast majority in Portland – the rising need shows how many people from the worst areas of the world need help, and how little the United States is doing to provide it.


In 2017, 18.4 million people worldwide were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, an increase of around 4 million from 2016 and the most since World War II, caused almost wholly by worsening conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.


Amid that crisis, America has abdicated its leadership role. Besides putting severe limits on immigration, the Trump administration has engaged in a policy of cruelty along the border, hoping to convince asylum seekers to stay home, whether that home is in Africa or Central America, where gangs and corrupt, ineffectual governments terrorize and persecute the citizenry.

The policy isn’t working – the promise of the U.S. to asylum seekers is too great, and the conditions in their home countries too grim and void of hope.


The right path, morally and logically, is to stabilize the areas of the world creating the crisis – as the State Department is planning, but which Trump has yet to support – and help asylum seekers here get quickly on their feet.

In a more sane world, the president would speed up the asylum process so that applicants don’t have to wait so long to work, as U.S. Sen. Angus King has proposed, and raise the number of refugees accepted to match the size of the crisis.

Instead, Trump has shut down the government in an effort to get more than $5 billion for his wasteful border wall. He has also threatened again to shut down the border, an act that would make the refugee problem infinitely worse.

Mainers should take pride that we are so welcoming. But we also shouldn’t have to fight this fight ourselves.

The refugee crisis calls for national leadership. Instead, with Trump, all we get is the politics of fear and prejudice.

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