Pedro Miguel, an asylum seeker from Angola, and his daughter Jamila, 7, walk through Monument Square on their way to the family shelter where Jamila is picked up by the bus for school on March 24. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Fifth of six parts

Read the Long Way Home series

Four years after asylum seekers from Africa began arriving in large numbers, Maine still does not have a long-term plan or coordinated system to provide them with basic services and ensure that no single municipality bears too much of the responsibility for their support.

For more than a decade, asylum seekers trickled in to Portland, and the city was able to meet the newcomers’ initial needs with such help as emergency shelter, food and language classes. Then in 2019 about 450 people arrived within a few weeks, so overwhelming the city’s social service infrastructure that officials turned the Portland Expo into a temporary shelter.

The state activated an emergency response, providing 350 cots and hundreds of blankets. And the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent in public health nurses and members of the Medical Reserve Corps.

Recently the city had to open the Expo again, for a much bigger influx – nearly 1,400 asylum seekers since January. While the state has allocated tens of millions of dollars to municipalities and nonprofits to handle the surge, neither Gov. Janet Mills nor the Legislature has moved on an urgent and ongoing call from cities, towns and nonprofits to create a central office to coordinate aid.

In the summer of 2019, the Portland Expo was first opened as a temporary shelter for asylum seekers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, one group providing shelter and services to asylum seekers, said a state office staffed with people experienced in helping asylum seekers would enable communities to respond more effectively.

It doesn’t work just to throw money at the problems, Chitam said. Good systems must be in place to spend that money well. And now a federal pandemic-era rule allowing the quick expulsion of noncitizens has ended, she said, which is expected to lead to more border crossings.


“When there is a disaster coming, when there is a hurricane coming, you prepare,” she said. “There’s a need. It’s not going away. … It’s something I just don’t understand. Why isn’t there state coordination?”

Claude Rwaganje, founder and executive director of ProsperityME, a nonprofit that provides financial education to Maine immigrants, said communities outside of Portland where asylum seekers are now settling would benefit from the guidance of those who have had more experience helping them.

“Asylum seekers will continue to come,” Rwaganje said. “Maine definitely needs people to come, so we need to have better coordination when they come.”

The lack of a statewide strategy on asylum seekers frustrates not just immigration advocates but Republicans, who generally oppose spending tax dollars on services for noncitizens.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, blames Mills and other Democrats for creating the crisis by being overly welcoming when Maine has a significant housing shortage. He criticizes the administration for spending millions without a clear long-term plan.

“They just want to throw more money at it,” Stewart said. “We’re doing fire, ready, aim. There’s a role for government to play in this, but it shouldn’t be just scattershot.”


Producing in-depth reports like “Long Way Home” is labor-intensive and expensive. At the same time, we are keeping access to the series open so that it can be read by everyone, especially asylum seekers. These stories can also be heard in a variety of languages through the audio player at the top of each page. To choose a language other than English, click or tap the globe logo next to the play button. See how.

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Mills declined this spring to speak to the Press Herald about asylum seekers. In a lengthy written response to questions, she emphasized the need for federal immigration reform. She also highlighted the state’s investments, including roughly $43 million for housing and services and $15 million in additional funding for general assistance – a voucher program for basic necessities whose costs are shared between the state (70%) and local municipalities (30%).

Mills said she has directed her staff to look into “what additional support” might help with coordination of services and what else the state can do, given the lack of federal immigration reform.

The hesitancy to centralize strategy reflects the political divide about the state’s role in helping asylum seekers, who many residents incorrectly believe have no legal right to be here. That divide is generally along urban-rural lines.

Peter Carleton, right, holds a sign in support of asylum seekers, and Casey Ryder holds a sign in support of the city’s shelter during a rally at Portland City Hall on May 20, 2019. The two Portland residents were among more than 100 people at the rally protesting various cuts to the city budget. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In Greater Portland, many officials, business leaders and residents see asylum seekers as key to addressing the state’s aging workforce and labor shortage, which they argue makes providing short-term financial assistance an investment in the future.

But in Maine’s more rural communities with few immigrants, people often worry that assistance to asylum seekers will come at the expense of struggling U.S. citizens.

General assistance is not limited and municipalities are required to provide it to anyone in need.


But the ballooning cost of temporary housing has the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, considering convening a group to look at reforms.

“We know that we’re at a tipping point here,” DHHS Deputy Commissioner Bethany Hamm told lawmakers in March. “We know that reform is necessary.”

State policymakers are stuck in the middle, dealing with the consequences of a dysfunctional federal immigration system and trying to prevent what some warn will be a humanitarian crisis if communities like Portland can’t meet the basic needs of this vulnerable population, which is legally prohibited from working right away.

Resources are stretched thinnest in Maine’s largest city. Sen. Jill Duson, a Democrat who previously served on the Portland City Council, said that her constituents want the city to welcome New Mainers, but are also concerned about costs. Many live on fixed incomes and are anxious about increased property taxes.

“These are very difficult balances to strike,” Duson said. “There’s not easy answers. It’s just a complete conflict of needs, but we need to stay engaged and figure it out.”

On Feb. 9 at Portland’s Family Shelter, David Malaba stands at the doorway calling out the names of families who will get to fill the overflow space, where they will sleep in chairs. The families who had been there the longest got called in first. All 80 spots were filled. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Without a centralized system, no one keeps track of how many asylum seekers have come to Maine and how much the state is spending on them.


Between 8,000 and 10,000 asylum seekers in Maine have cases pending in immigration court, according to Anna Welch, founder and director of the University of Maine School of Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, which advocates for low-income immigrants and provides them with legal assistance. But many additional people arrive weekly who have not yet filed asylum applications.

About 5,300 asylum seekers have received general assistance for an average of eight months each since 2015, including 3,306 in Portland alone, according to DHHS, which could not provide a total cost estimate since municipalities don’t bill separately for asylum seekers.

That lack of clear information makes it hard to have an informed discussion about how much the state can afford to spend.

Both the right to seek asylum and the country’s border policies are controlled by the federal government.

In the past, most asylum seekers would enter the country on a visa and then seek asylum. But visas have become harder to get, so more migrants now declare their intent to seek asylum when they arrive at the southern border.

After being screened by immigration officials, many asylum seekers are released into the country and remain free while their cases are being adjudicated, as long as they file applications within a year and attend scheduled immigration appointments.


They have a legal right to remain until their cases are decided. But they are not allowed to work for at least six months after filing their asylum applications, which can take a year to complete given the need to produce evidence of persecution. Final decisions can take years more because of court backlogs.

Federal immigration reform has proven elusive in the U.S. Congress. Republicans want to secure the border and reduce the number of asylum seekers entering the country. Democrats are looking for more resources to clear court backlogs, speed up legal employment and help asylum seekers quickly reach self sufficiency.

Since 2015, Maine’s congressional delegation has repeatedly pushed to reduce the period asylum seekers must wait to seek work authorization from at least six months to 30 days. But so far, those efforts have gone nowhere.

Maine’s U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, reintroduced bills to shorten the waiting time this year, stressing that local communities are being stretched beyond their means.

Officials in Portland and South Portland sent letters last May to border officials and nonprofits down south, saying they could no longer guarantee shelter. The warnings did not stem the flow.

In March, Collins wrote to Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, asking that border agents confirm that the places where asylum seekers say they are going are prepared to receive and help them.


Passengers exit a Greyhound bus in Portland on June 13, 2019. Multiple families of asylum seekers were passengers on the bus, many of whom were met by volunteers who shuttled them to the emergency shelter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Allowing additional asylum seekers to travel to Maine without first confirming that these individuals will have a place to sleep is irresponsible and could lead to tragedy, ” Collins wrote.

During a March Senate hearing, Collins pressed Mayorkas on speeding up work authorization.

Mayorkas said he would work with Collins on her bill to allow asylum seekers to work sooner and noted that Canada is more responsive to workforce need.

In Canada, asylum seekers can ask for work permits when they submit their initial asylum claims – and if the claims are deemed eligible, after medical screenings, they can get work permits quickly.

Mayorkas also stressed the need for comprehensive – rather than piecemeal – reform.

“Our asylum system is fundamentally broken,” he said.


While big changes to the immigration system can be made only at the federal level, state lawmakers have been trying creative solutions, including a bill to request a federal waiver so Maine could put asylum seekers to work right after they file their asylum applications. Nothing in federal law allows for such a waiver.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said he’s sponsoring the bill in order to reduce reliance on the state’s welfare programs.

“It’s one thing to say we’re going to give people resources and a helping hand to get on their feet until they’re ready to work,” said Brakey, “but it’s another thing to say they’re not allowed to work for six months.”

Brakey is cosponsoring a bill from Rep. Randall Greenwood, R-Wales, to limit general assistance to U.S. citizens. Greenwood declined to discuss it until after a public hearing.

Brakey is also sponsoring a bill that would require 180-day residency in Maine before getting state benefits and 45-day residency in a Maine city or town before getting local ones.

“I think over the years we have skewed too much towards being a well-known welfare destination,” he said.


As governor, Republican Paul LePage temporarily cut off welfare benefits for asylum seekers in 2015. He was promptly sued by Portland and the Maine Municipal Association, which advocates for cities and towns. The court ruled for LePage, who argued that federal law prohibited the state from providing public benefits to asylum seekers unless state law explicitly made them eligible.

At the time, Maine had no such law, but lawmakers quickly passed one, with some Republican support, after the ruling. LePage failed to veto the bill, which became law without his signature.

His administration, however, narrowly interpreted the law when setting rules, excluding some noncitizens.

After her election, Mills loosened eligibility rules in response to the 2019 influx of asylum seekers and removed a requirement that asylum seekers file their full applications before receiving benefits.

She has since supported additional state resources to help communities. Her written statement outlined nearly $60 million in funding for asylum seekers in her recent budgets.

The state funded three warming shelters and hundreds of hotel rooms through April 30. Mills said the state is funding 350 shelter beds, primarily for asylum seekers. And the state has partnered with Catholic Charities to help more than 400 people living in a Saco hotel access services that help them with cultural orientation, transportation, school enrollment and connecting with health care providers and adult-education classes.


Marcayla Amadei, left, of South Portland and Shaun Hufton of Saco hold signs in protest at a 2019 meeting during which Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Portland officials and others discussed the response to the surge of asylum seekers in the city. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The state is also paying two years of rent for asylum seekers moving into 150 units in three new apartment buildings in Greater Portland.  They include a 50-unit project by Avesta Housing in South Portland and another 60 units expected to open in June in Brunswick. And Mills said state funding helped 125 asylum-seeking households avoid evictions.

State Republicans have suggested that helping asylum seekers may take money away from others in need.

“Maine has a very serious opioid epidemic, rising homelessness, a serious housing shortage, and many other issues associated with a lack of resources for Maine citizens,” said Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, who is co-sponsoring Greenwood’s bill.

Democrats have proposed expanding state help – by covering noncitizens under the state’s Medicaid program, creating transitional housing for asylum seekers and increasing the state’s share of general assistance costs from 70% to 90% to ease local governments’ financial burdens.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, declined to discuss asylum seekers, but in a statement stressed immigration’s positives, given the labor shortage and aging population.

“Maine has a long history of being a welcoming community. It should be no different for those seeking asylum,” Talbot Ross said. “Immigration – along with education and workforce development – is an essential part of the solution to major issues facing Maine both now, and in our future.”


Talbot Ross has sponsored a bill that would cover noncitizens under the state’s Medicaid program – coverage eliminated by LePage. She said she has concerns about creating a statewide office solely for asylum seekers, but would like to see a statewide housing office for all Mainers.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, meanwhile, has introduced a bill to start a modest statewide program to coordinate expertise, resources and services for asylum seekers. His proposal would create one full-time position in the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development to help municipalities, especially rural communities, get assistance from those who have more experience.

But Bennett may not find much support from the many Republicans who see the large number of asylum seekers as a Portland problem it brought on itself.

Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, said in an interview that the asylum seekers flowing into the Portland area were a hot topic last year on the campaign trail, and that most of her constituents thought Portland should shoulder the costs of helping them.

“They say, ‘Portland welcomed them with open arms and let Portland take care of it,’ ” she said. “They’re always complaining that Portland gets all of the funding for everything, that we’re sort of the forgotten stepchildren of Washington County.”

Without federal and state reform, individual municipalities remain on the front lines.


Nowhere in Maine is under more pressure than Portland, which is where the vast majority of the state’s asylum seekers arrive. Its lack of affordable housing is particularly acute. That makes it harder to get landlords to accept vouchers, which keeps people in shelters.

Chitam said that in 2019 it took only a few months to house 50 families. Now, it takes that much time to find just a couple of homes.

Hope Acts, a nonprofit that supports New Mainers, has recently partnered with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and the Portland Public Library to help with navigating the asylum-seeking process. Led by Hope Acts’ Serge Asumani, interpreters and volunteers help access the correct documents and share in-language instructions provided by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, offering materials and language interpretation so asylum seekers can successfully submit their applications. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

City Manager Danielle West said the city has pressed hard for statewide coordination, largely because of the lack of housing. With at least 200 vacancies in city government, she said, staffers are scrambling to meet newcomers’ basic needs.

“It’s emotionally and otherwise mentally and physically very taxing on the staff,” she said. “Your job is never over.”

West said she’s heard from federal officials that Portland may be receiving more asylum seekers per capita than much larger cities like New York and Washington, D.C., though a lack of dependable data makes it hard to know.

What is clear is that in one year, Portland saw its general assistance budget balloon from $16 million in the 2022 fiscal year to $60 million, primarily because of the cost of renting hotel rooms to house the newcomers. West said she expects that budget to drop to about $23 million in the next fiscal year as fewer hotel rooms are used.

The city just opened a new 208-bed homeless services center, which filled on its first day. The Expo just came back into use until a new shelter for asylum seekers opens this summer.

That new shelter, with a proposed capacity of 280, will be operated by the Center for Regional Prosperity, the nonprofit arm of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. It’s also likely to fill up right away.

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