We refer to them as migrants, immigrants, new Mainers.

Pedro Miguel and his daughter Jamila, 7, walk through Monument Square in Portland on their way to the family shelter where Jamila is picked up by the bus for school on March 24. Although Portland is sometimes casually referred to as a “sanctuary city,” no formal designation has ever been made, and the city has no such policy. No city in Maine does. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

We’ve read the news headlines and wondered about the limits to our capacity to house or help them. We’ve seen the placards protesting their arrival to our state and those purporting to welcome them unconditionally, philosophical division that can be found as easily at the grocery store as it can at the State House.

But although opinions and ideas vary, the truth is that very few of us know enough about the day-to-day experience of the thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in Maine in recent months and years. Nor do we know much about the hardship and trauma these people endured before fleeing from their home countries, or the terrible toll that – despite being in the relative safety of the U.S. – often interminable bureaucratic limbo takes on their lives.

”Long Way Home,” the six-part series by the Press Herald that concluded Saturday, brought these too-little-considered details to light, reporting intricate stories about asylum seekers’ long and harrowing journeys to our state, mostly from Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, and uncovering the patchwork quilt of advice and information that makes roads lead to Maine in the first place.

The reporting vividly outlined the distinct challenges faced by record numbers of asylum seekers who have arrived here.

It succeeded in piercing through abstract hand-wringing over immigration by chronicling deeply affecting personal stories; went well beyond the day-to-day discourse to reveal the truth of individuals’ and families’ quest to make it work in Maine, and highlighted the potential contribution this wave of newcomers can make to a stronger and more dynamic state – if we only manage it properly.


The concept of “sanctuary” comes up time and again as we reflect on the wave of mostly African migrants seeking asylum in Maine.

Although Portland is sometimes casually referred to as a “sanctuary city” – some critics have suggested that status is to blame for the volume of asylum seekers that it is now contending with – no formal designation has ever been made, and the city has no such policy. No city in Maine does.

What our reporting last week bears out is that, with or without that label, Maine’s reputation as a place that is safe and welcoming precedes it.

In recent times, however, we have watched the state be permissive or compassionate in spirit but more or less derelict in practice. Maine does not keep tabs on the number of asylum seekers who come into the state, nor does it – despite repeated calls by advocates – have anything like a centralized office for the administration of resources to immigrants.

Disappointment with the state’s response bubbled over this time last year, when Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, since elected speaker of the Maine House, described its response as “abysmal.” An open letter arranged at that time by the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and signed by 79 organizations called for state-level coordination, saying then what holds true today: “Maine’s non-governmental organizations do not have the adequate resources, access, or authority to replace the government in providing coordinated aid to asylum seekers, nor should they. Asylum is a human right guaranteed by international and U.S. law, and it is the government’s responsibility to care for and protect people seeking asylum.”

Our state cannot wish away this pattern of migration. What Maine can do is better prepare for it and position itself to take the appropriate advantage of it.


In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, Charles S. Colgan, an economic forecaster and academic, had this to say about Maine’s aging demographics and the sharp economic need for more people: “Anything we’re doing now to keep immigrants out, and anything we’re doing to not attract people to come to Maine from the rest of the U.S. and the rest of the world, is going to be deadly for the next decade.”

And what’s the opposite of deadly? Ask Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh, who arrived in Maine from Nigeria two years ago and lives with her husband and three children in Portland.

“I just hope that one day I will contribute to the development of Maine,” Jimoh told the Press Herald. “Maine put a lot of things into me, so I have to pay it back and put a lot of things in to make it more developed than it was before. I have hope, and I think it will work.”

Read the Press Herald series “Long Way Home” at pressherald.com/longwayhome. Rachel Ohm, the lead reporter covering Portland’s influx of asylum seekers for the Press Herald, will lead a virtual panel discussion on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Register at pressherald.com/events.

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