Maine is facing a humanitarian crisis. That was the warning issued by 79 southern Maine organizations that work with immigrants and on immigration policy in a May 20 letter requesting that the government pay more attention to a growing problem.

As of last week, the city of Portland is housing 343 families, or 1,186 individuals, who have come to the United States seeking asylum. City officials have written to government agencies and nongovernmental groups on the southern border to say that the city’s resources are exhausted, and it will not be able to guarantee help for newly arrived immigrants who need housing or other services.

But people are still coming: Portland reports that more than 60 new families have arrived since May 5, when the letter was sent to the southern border agencies, and are being forced to find shelter on their own.

It has been said many times that this is not a problem that Portland and its nearest neighbors can solve on their own. We have repeatedly called for the governor to take a leadership role and claim state responsibility for the basic, human needs of people who come here, running for their lives.

It was good to read Thursday that the state will soon set up an emergency shelter for 280 individuals, and is developing housing for 140 families, which is not enough, but a good start.

It’s important, however,  to recognize that this is really even too big a problem to be left at the state’s door.


What we are seeing in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook is the result of the 30-year failure of the federal government to reform our immigration laws in order to meet the nation’s changing needs.

Lies about an immigrant invasion through “open borders” drive the policy debate, while employers complain about worker shortages and people who, in many cases, are escaping imminent violence or death are kept in inhumane conditions and treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, millions of undocumented residents are living and working in the country, always at risk of being deported, in some cases to a country they left when they were babies.

Bipartisan attempts to pass comprehensive reform failed in 2005 and 2013. Repeated attempts to help the “Dreamers,” immigrants who were brought to the country as children by undocumented parents, have also failed to get passed.

With the start of the Trump presidency in 2017, legal immigration slowed to a crawl. The government reduced the number of refugees accepted by nearly 90 percent, dropping from 85,000 in 2016 to 10,000 in 2020, their lowest levels in decades. The number of people granted legal permanent resident status (“green cards”) declined by 40 percent between 2016 and 2020.

Asylum is a feature of international treaties and U.S. law and the number of people seeking it cannot be controlled by Washington. People have a right to stay if they face persecution or harm in their home country.


Asylum seekers can wait years before their claims are reviewed in immigration court. They are not allowed to work for six months after their applications are filed. People who were brave and capable enough to cross an ocean and a continent to make their way from Africa to Maine are barred by law from providing their own food and shelter.

The Biden administration has proposed sweeping changes to the asylum program that would solve some of these problems by hiring thousands of asylum officers who could decide cases without adding to the backlog in federal court, but it will first have to overcome lawsuits.

Until the federal government adjusts immigration policy to the country’s real needs, we are going to have immigrants and communities faced with the kind of choices that we see in southern Maine.

The Maine state government should step up and lead the effort to feed and shelter asylum seekers. But we should not forget that inaction by the federal government is creating this crisis, and that continued inertia can only make it worse.

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