The people of Maine, especially those in the Portland area, should be proud.

Faced with the sudden arrival of somewhere around 200 asylum-seeking refugees from Africa, public officials, nonprofit organizations and private citizens responded with compassion and competence, turning the Portland Expo into an emergency shelter overnight.

With refugees still getting off at the Congress Street Greyhound depot, everyone is still in a crisis-response mode. But the state will soon have to look beyond the crisis.

A cot, a hot meal and a safe place to sleep are blessings for someone who has nowhere to go, but they’re not a plan. Good people can talk about a future where immigrant families are woven into the fabric of our communities, but that doesn’t just happen by magic. The challenge for all of us who believe that welcoming strangers is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing will be moving from abstract notions to specific plans. And we are going to have to do it quickly.

This is not going to be a job that a city, even one as big as Portland, can take on. It’s going to require leadership on the state level, with substantial assistance from Washington through Maine’s congressional delegation.

Advocates say that after food and shelter, the next need for anyone seeking asylum will be in the legal arena. Asylum seekers cannot work for pay until at least 150 days after they file an application, and that is no simple matter.


Think about applying for college financial aid or doing the paperwork for a big bank loan, and you have an idea of the kind of process they face. Then think about filling out such an application in a foreign language, and the only supporting documents you can provide are the ones you grabbed as you were running for your life and managed to hold onto as you traveled across the globe.

A daunting statistic for the new arrivals is that only 15 percent of people who apply for asylum get it. But applicants who are represented by a lawyer do much better, with more than 80 percent of them successfully securing permission to stay. A lawyer familiar with immigration cases estimates that each asylum application takes about 250 to 500 hours to process, and the local network of volunteer lawyers in Maine is already overwhelmed.

Without legal aid, it is likely that this group of asylum seekers, along with many who are already here, will be stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

Those who can file an application will find other obstacles in their path. Affordable housing is one. Learning or improving English is another. Many asylum seekers arrive with college degrees, but don’t have credentials to practice in their field once they arrive.

No one in Augusta understands this dynamic better than state Rep. Michael Brennan, a Democrat who was mayor of Portland in 2015 when the state took away General Assistance eligibility for those who had not yet applied for asylum. Brennan and the City Council created a fund to prevent the crisis that would have erupted when about 800 city residents lost their housing. The existence of that fund is part of what draws asylum seekers to Portland, but Brennan said it was never intended to be a refugee resettlement program.

As a lawmaker, Brennan introduced L.D. 1107, “An Act to Promote Workforce Development and Integration.” Rather than rely on locally administered General Assistance, which is designed for neighbors to help each other through temporary setbacks, Brennan proposed creating a $5 million fund to distribute competitive grants to programs across the state designed to bring immigrants into the productive workforce.


That could take the form of language classes or job training. It might be programs that connect people with open jobs, maybe helping them with housing or transportation. It would be a statewide program, coordinating a statewide strategy.

“It’s great that so many people (on the local level) have stepped up,” Brennan said. “But we need to look beyond the immediate crisis.”

Unfortunately, Brennan’s bill will not get a vote this year. He agreed to withdraw it after getting a commitment from the Department of Labor to study the issue and report back to the Legislature in January. The events of last week should give that study plenty to work with.

The word-of-mouth that brings people to Maine is good news for those of us who already live here. But new arrivals are going to need more than a cot on a basketball court if we are going to make it work.

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