Maine’s congressional delegation responded with concern and a flurry of inquiries Wednesday about why a large and sudden influx of asylum seekers is coming to Portland and what assistance the state’s largest city will need to handle the challenges ahead.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden all pointed to the need for comprehensive immigration reform as the ongoing issue of asylum seekers crossing the southern U.S. border moved closer to home.

Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent, issued a joint statement Wednesday saying their staffs have contacted federal Customs and Border Protection officials seeking clarity on the process being used to clear asylum seekers for transportation to Portland.

They said their staffs also have been in communication with local officials to understand the full scope of the challenges facing the city.

Since Sunday, Portland has received nearly 100 asylum seekers, most of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in the sub-Saharan countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Officials say an additional 150 asylum seekers heading for Portland have boarded buses in recent days in San Antonio, and hundreds more could be headed this way.

“We don’t know why the asylum seekers have chosen Portland, nor do we know why their requests have been accommodated,” Collins and King said in the written statement. “This is clearly not a sustainable approach to handling the asylum situation.”

Collins and King have advocated for bipartisan immigration reform and proposed bipartisan legislation that would both increase border security and address flaws in the current immigration system, the statement said.

“The senators believe that if we’re going to fix this problem, the Senate needs to address it head on, through legislation and negotiation,” they said. “(We) are both interested in providing additional resources to the federal agencies that process asylum claims, so we can reduce the existing backlog and adjudicate new claims in a more timely fashion.”

Further, King said he believes that in order to fully address these challenges, “Congress needs a partner in the White House who is prepared to engage in good faith on finding a solution that does not seek to inflict harm on immigrant communities.”

Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, including Portland, said she and her staff are working to address the city’s concerns and continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform that would make it easier for asylum seekers to become productive residents.

“Portland has long been a welcoming city for immigrants and refugees,” Pingree said in a written statement. “We should celebrate that and be supportive in any way possible. It has been heartening to see city leaders and community partners come together so quickly on behalf of these individuals, as they often have before.”

Pingree noted that most of the migrants who have arrived in Portland since Sunday have had long, harrowing journeys from conflict-torn countries.

“These families choose to leave their homes for a reason and are seeking refuge here for the opportunity of a better life,” Pingree said. “For them, Maine means hope.”

As part of her push for immigration reform, Pingree has reintroduced a bill that would make it easier for asylum seekers to get to work more quickly than the current waiting period allows. The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act would reduce the current 180-day waiting period for work authorization to 30 days. The bill would make no other changes to the asylum process.

“This could have an impact on these new asylum seekers, allowing them to work and be self-sufficient through the process of establishing roots in this community,” Pingree said. “The United States should be giving newcomers the opportunity to live a safe and fulfilling life.”

Golden is a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District. His staff is monitoring the situation in Portland as well, spokesman Nick Zeller said.

“The congressman is pushing for comprehensive immigration reform that includes strengthening border security and improving the asylum-seeking process,” Zeller said in a written statement.


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