This year, Maine has received more than 1,600 asylum seekers. This migration is part of a global trend. The United Nations estimated in June that 110 million people have been displaced by war, climate change and poverty across the globe.

Pedro Miguel and his daughter Jamila walk through Monument Square on their way to the family shelter where Jamila is picked up by the bus for school on March 24. The arrival of more than 1,600 asylum seekers in Maine this year is part of a global trend that is the result of the displacement of 110 million people by war, climate change and poverty worldwide. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While a recent op-ed focused on speeding up federal work authorization documents for asylum seekers (“Commentary: Businesses need reform of asylum seeker work authorization,” Sept. 3), new arrivals in Maine need more than work permits to succeed. They need to be received by welcoming communities.

Maine’s nonprofit community is strong, offering new arrivals support with transportation, job placement, housing, education and health services. Yet, service providers are managing every group of new arrivals as an emergency. The Portland Press Herald series “Long Way Home” (May 21; May 23-27) highlighted the need for more state and federal support.

Gov. Mills has issued an executive order to establish an Office of New Americans. To support the ensure the smooth integration of asylum seekers, this office can focus on four core tasks:

1) Identify welcoming communities.

2) Fund transitional housing.


3) Invest in comprehensive services.

4) Train new arrivals for the workforce.

Welcoming communities are towns with the capacity and desire to accept immigrants. Refugee resettlement agencies regularly conduct studies on where to place new arrivals based on economic indicators of absorption capacity. Yet welcoming newcomers is about more than capacity. It involves acceptance from a community that says, “We want you here.”

Welcome is a form of social capital that can be identified by the state and local leaders. The new office can survey municipalities to ask if they are willing to assist new Mainers. Welcoming communities should embrace people of different races, languages, and religious backgrounds.

Sanford is a good example of a welcoming community. After receiving a hundred people in May, every family was housed and assisted by the end of August. What made this case successful? Local leaders working with community representatives to secure the placement of families. Maine has more places like Sanford that can respond to emerging needs.

Once welcoming communities are identified, Maine State Housing can offer incentives for developers to build housing in the area. Creating space for new arrivals while providing affordable housing for established communities is a win-win solution for all Mainers.


Funding transitional housing: While hotels offer temporary shelter, they can also isolate immigrants from local communities. Given current housing shortages, Maine needs a stop-gap measure for housing new arrivals. The Greater Portland Council of Governments has a cost-saving proposal to establish transitional housing communities where migrants can wait for permanent housing to become available. GPCOG has established the Safe in Maine Fund to support the creation of transitional housing. The new state office can work with municipalities to identify potential sites.

Investing in comprehensive services for new Mainers will involve mapping the local, state and federal resources for immigrants. This will include resolving the question of how much General Assistance funding for municipalities should be reimbursed by the state and maximizing the use of federal funds. More funding should be identified to help local school districts provide English as a Second Language classes to students and to support legal services for asylum seekers.

Training new arrivals for the workforce can also be supported by state agencies. The Maine AFL-CIO launched a construction traineeship program that will graduate refugees from Afghanistan and Central Africa. Similar trainee programs could be established by other industries that need workers.

The new state office can play a critical role by pursuing cooperative relationships with municipalities, housing developers, and employers that are willing to establish welcoming communities across the state. This will reduce pressure on the city of Portland to receive new arrivals.

This summer, the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition hosted a forum celebrating the global cultures that have come to the state. During the event, I spoke with artists from Argentina, chefs from Ghana, dancers from Cambodia and businessmen from Zambia.

Mainers no longer need to go overseas to experience the world. The world has come to Maine. To reap the benefits of immigration, the state will need to make smart investments in communities that welcome new arrivals.

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