African migrants who arrived in Portland in recent weeks shouldn’t worry about President Trump’s mass deportation threats, but they should take care to follow U.S. laws and meet the requirements of the asylum process, immigration lawyers and police said Thursday.

The assurances came as two groups are offering legal workshops for the families who have come to Maine’s largest city seeking asylum from sub-Saharan countries.

City officials and a leader of the Congolese Community of Maine said some families have left the emergency shelter established at the Portland Expo and are heading to Canada because they fear they will be rounded up and deported. Their concern coincides with increasing talk by the Trump administration about an impending effort to deport large numbers of illegal immigrants.

But Beth Stickney, an immigration lawyer with over 30 years experience and former executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said that fear is largely unfounded based on a preliminary review of some families’ paperwork earlier this week.

“In general, they do not need to worry about deportation at all at this point,” said Stickney, now the executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition.

She and other volunteer lawyers reviewed the paperwork of many of the families staying at the Portland Expo on Monday and found that all were legally present. Since they are in the country legally, they do not need to worry about being deported, unless they did not receive their notices to appear in court and miss a future court date, she said.


“The individuals at the Expo that we’ve seen so far arrived so recently that their cases have not yet been scheduled for hearings,” said Stickney, adding that most families seeking asylum show up for their court hearings. “I can say from personal experience I never had a client not show up for a hearing unless there was a medical emergency that prevented it – and then we successfully did a motion to postpone the hearing.”

ILAP Executive Director Sue Roche, also an attorney, agreed. “People cannot be deported until they have completed the immigration court process,” Roche said.

Portland has received 87 families, totaling 292 individuals, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, in recent weeks. As of Tuesday night, 223 people were still at the Expo.

The families are fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands. Many of the migrants asked to be sent to Portland after learning about the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.

The typical journey for these families begins with a flight to Ecuador or a boat ride to Brazil. Then the families, including pregnant women and young children, embark on a perilous months-long journey, mostly on foot, through rugged jungles, mountains and rivers in Central America and Mexico.

The new arrivals entered the United States at the southern border of Texas and declared their intent to seek asylum. They were released into the country by immigration authorities and allowed to travel freely while they pursue their asylum cases in immigration court. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work for at least six months after filing their asylum applications, and it can take many months to prepare the application before filing.


Lawyers from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project will spend all day Friday at the Portland Expo, which was quickly converted into an emergency shelter last week, to review any paperwork the migrants may have and offer legal advice.

On Thursday night, the Congolese Community Association of Maine hosted a workshop at Gateway Community Services on Forest Avenue. About 50 asylum-seekers attended.

The meeting was geared toward building relationships between local police and the new arrivals and addressing any concerns they have about their legal rights as immigrants. Many of the newcomers are eager for information and are preyed upon by unscrupulous people offering faulty legal advice for large sums of money, said Papy Bongibo, president of the Congolese association.

Interim Portland Police Chief Vern Malloch addressed the group first, delivering one or two sentences at a time, as an interpreter translated his words into French.

“Welcome,” Malloch said. “Your families have been through a tremendous journey and we’re thrilled to have you here.”

Malloch described some cultural and legal differences between the United States and their homelands, saying that police here cannot arrest or detain people without cause. However, some things that might be overlooked in their countries are considered illegal here, such as domestic violence, he said.


Malloch said Portland police aren’t concerned with their immigration status and would only ask about their country of origin to determine whether they need a translator. He also advised against offering bribes to or running away from police officers if they are arrested for any reason.

“You get a much better result if you cooperate,” Malloch said.

Vanessa Masterson, a lawyer from Lowell, Massachusetts, who specializes in immigration, then answered questions from the audience. She reviewed documents written in English that the migrants received either in Texas or from immigration officials in South Portland.

Some of the asylum seekers were confused by changed hearing dates and fearful that they would miss an appointment with a judge or deportation officer and wind up losing their chance at a new life here.

Some described crossing the Rio Grande and entering the United States before presenting themselves to immigration officials in Texas, rather than entering at a designated border crossing.

Reviewing one man’s paperwork, Masterson said it was an order to appear for a hearing and it indicated that he came into the country illegally, without a visa. In the months ahead, she said, the migrants should gather evidence and witnesses to demonstrate their eligibility for asylum, which can be granted if they prove they feared persecution for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group.


“You’ll be expected to prove your case, not just (tell) a story,” Masterson said. “It’s not something you want to take lightly … They’ve given you a date. I would advise you to appear.”

City Manager Jon Jennings said Wednesday that the city has been sensitive to the trauma that many asylum seekers have endured by the police and military back home. That’s primarily why the city has unarmed security guards inside the Expo, rather than uniformed police officers.

Those seeking asylum face a long and complicated application process that includes paperwork, interviews and in some cases a court appearance. Applicants must fill out a 15-page application in English and provide documentation and proof that they would be – or have a credible fear of being – harmed if they return to their country.

Affirmative applications, or those filed by people who came to the U.S. on a travel or student visa, can take years to be processed, while defensive applications, from those who have been detained at the border, can move quicker. In an effort to clear the existing backlog of immigration cases, federal officials have begun reviewing new applications first.

Maine’s asylum cases are handled out of Boston, which currently has more than 30,000 cases pending, according to data compiled by Syracuse University. The average wait for each case is 782 days.

The focus on legal help for asylum seekers comes as the inflow of migrants has largely stopped and officials from Portland and surrounding communities have begun focusing on trying to find housing for the migrants. Applications must be filed within a year of their arrival in the country.

Jennings said his goal is to decommission the shelter at the Expo within the next few weeks. But to do that, the 60 families would need to find more stable housing arrangements.

So far, the city has received nearly $400,000 in donations to help the families staying at the Expo.

The donations come from more than 2,500 people in 30 states and 226 different Maine communities, according to the city. But the costs of assistance for the families is sure to exceed those donations and some Portlanders are worried about the long-term costs to the city.

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