If you live in Maine, you know that the arrival of hundreds of asylum seekers in Portland earlier this summer was one of the biggest emergencies to affect our state this year. The overwhelmingly collaborative and compassionate response by communities in the Portland area was astonishing to witness. Our municipalities, governor and residents stepped up to offer what resources they had available to our new neighbors, including converting the Expo into an emergency shelter. What has been accomplished and what continues to be managed is remarkable. And yet there is a significant entity that, arguably, could be more involved – our state Legislature.

While our state government does not have jurisdiction over how asylum law is enforced, it does have the power to reduce barriers to support services. This is how Gov. Mills created a rule change in July that opened eligibility criteria for General Assistance benefits to those who had a notice to appear in immigration court and were planning to apply for asylum.

At the most recent Legislative Council meeting, nearly 400 bills were voted on for consideration to be seen before the Legislature next session. No bills proposed would have supported asylum-seekers.

Ironically, the purpose of the second regular session of the Legislature is to consider emergency legislation. What occurred this summer was undoubtedly an emergency, and we know that it is happening again. It would benefit our state – both addressing workforce needs and diversifying our communities – to support new Mainers with access to resources they need beyond an emergency response to their arrival.

This is not to say the Legislature has been entirely absent. Sponsored by state Rep. Drew Gattine, L.D. 1317, An Act To Restore Services To Help Certain Noncitizens Meet Their Basic Needs, would have removed limitations on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits; provided MaineCare coverage, and opened up state-funded Supplemental Security Income eligibility criteria for certain noncitizens who are lawfully present in the United States or pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief. That bill died on adjournment in June.

Adding to the safety and protection of asylum seekers and those planning on applying for asylum, Maine could enhance workers rights laws, create specific state-funded aid or scholarships toward education and strengthen credential recognition of skilled workers with an educated background. So why didn’t our state Legislature propose emergency legislation that could have supported asylum seekers?

This question is especially pertinent when considering the economic and social benefits asylum seekers bring to the communities they resettle in. Portland is on the national forefront of devising innovative solutions that integrate the needs of new Mainers while addressing the state’s varied workforce and socioeconomic needs. For instance, Portland Adult Education and Southern Maine Community College are rolling out the “Building the Pipeline” program. SMCC’s president, Joe Cassidy, was recently cited in a Portland Press Herald article describing the program as an “initiative (that) will allow us to improve the quality of hands-on training for new Mainers, providing them with the skills that businesses are looking for to grow and prosper.” Perhaps this initiative will serve as a model for creating similar programs throughout the state.

Our Legislature could follow the lead of local creative community responses and enact statewide change. The arrival of asylum seekers to Maine is not as much a problem as it is an opportunity.

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