Cots are lined up inside the Portland Expo on the June morning when about 100 asylum seekers protested outside the temporary shelter over what they said was a lack of a clear plan for permanent housing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Third of four stories 

Since January, more than 1,600 asylum seekers have come to Portland looking to build a new life. Few have arrived since a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo closed in August.

Pious Ali says people will keep coming though.

“America is a beautiful country and has a lot to offer the world and the people who come here, and so does Portland,” said Ali, who came to the United States from Ghana more than two decades ago.

Portland’s five mayoral candidates may be more aligned on this issue than any other. They all fundamentally see asylum seekers as an asset to the city, and they all want to see the wait time before they can work made much shorter. They all also feel a little bit helpless.

For years, Portland has welcomed these immigrants, who often undertake dangerous journeys to get here and then go through an arduous, sometimes yearslong process to get visas and work authorization.


Without legal approval to work, many asylum seekers rely on General Assistance to pay for housing, food and other essential needs. Federal rules prohibit them from obtaining work permits for at least six months after they file for asylum. But often the process takes far longer.

“We’re really in an impossible situation because of our silly immigration system and the way it allows people to come in and then prevents them from working,” Justin Costa said.

“This one is far beyond the pay grade of the Portland City Council, but we should be trying to come up with creative solutions,” said Andrew Zarro.

Ali, who became an American citizen just over 15 years ago, has the most experience working with asylum seekers and the larger immigrant community. He knows how hard it is to start out in a new country.

“I hope we can look at asylum seekers as an asset rather than a challenge, because they are here and they want to work. They want to contribute,” he said.

Mark Dion said that decisions about immigration are happening at the border, so the city can’t control how many people come here needing help. Once they get here, he said, there are limits to what the city can offer them on its own.


“I want the rest of the state to have some communion with this issue,” he said.

Dylan Pugh also is frustrated by the federal regulations that slow down employment, but feels there has to be something the city can do.

“We have an obligation to asylum seekers who are coming here,” he said. “How do we build legal frameworks and the mechanisms to allow them to work and become self-sufficient?”

Roitelet Ndunza Pindi watches his son, Salvador, play at Portland’s Family Shelter on March 14. Pindi and his family slept on mats on the floor at the shelter and during they day they sat for hours inside the daytime space. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At points over the past year and a half, the housing crunch became so severe that city leaders weren’t sure they could find enough shelter for asylum seekers. The Oxford Street shelter, now replaced by the new Homeless Services Center, was full. The city’s family shelter ran out of room and set up chairs in an extra space for people to sleep sitting up.

The city repeatedly sent word to agencies along the border that people shouldn’t be encouraged to come to Portland because housing would no longer be guaranteed.

Since then, the Expo, area hotels and homeless shelters have served as temporary housing while asylum seekers wait to start work and, like other Mainers, grapple with the housing shortage. When the Expo filled up this spring, the city told asylum seekers that shelter could not be guaranteed.



While the mayoral hopefuls understand that the city can’t change federal immigration laws, some say they would be more conservative than others in navigating the legal limitations.

If elected mayor, Ali said his focus would be on supporting state and federal efforts to help asylum seekers and advocate for changes to immigration laws. Two members of Maine’s congressional delegation, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins, have introduced bills to shorten the time asylum seekers have to wait to work legally.

Ali said he would work closely with Pingree and Collins to support their bills. He is also excited about Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to launch a state Office of New Americans, which will focus on integrating immigrants into the workforce and their communities, and may coordinate some information and resources. He hopes that the office will advocate for reforming federal immigration law. He said he would like to be involved in the work to help understand what the new office will do and what gaps the city will need to fill.

“I would make sure that we realign our priorities with the state so that we don’t duplicate what the state is doing,” Ali said.

Interpreter Rodrigo Juliani helps Mabiala Kuta Nsikulusu, 31, of Angola with her asylum application in November. Hope Acts, a nonprofit that supports new Mainers partnered with the Maine Immigrants’ Right Coalition and the Portland Public Library to help with navigating the asylum-seeking process. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Pugh and Zarro are less patient. They are interested in exploring the possibility of giving asylum seekers the chance to work, even with the existing federal laws in place.


Zarro said he would like to explore a public-private partnership in which the city connects small businesses in need of extra help with asylum seekers who can’t work yet. He said asylum seekers could get temporary work authorization through the city even without a Social Security number. Denver has been exploring a similar idea.

Zarro also points to New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ successful push to get early federal work authorization for some migrants. He said he’d like to try something similar from Portland.

But he acknowledged that the city would need to proceed with caution and consult immigration lawyers about both ideas.

“This is by no means something I’m saying I will shove through, but this does sound like an appealing possibility,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to lose their green card or businesses to get in trouble.”

Pugh wants to ensure that if the city did move forward with this kind of approach, asylum seekers would be shielded from any potential ramifications. Asylum applications, for instance, could run the risk of being rejected if federal officials found out applicants had been working illegally. Both Zarro and Pugh said they would happily travel to Washington, D.C., to advocate for federal change.

Costa feels the idea of breaking the federal laws about work authorization is too dangerous for him to pursue.


“It’s their lives on the line,” he said of asylum seekers, “and if we miss, it’s going to lead to deportations.”

Dion also thinks the a risk is too great.

“That’s not going to work out,” he said. “The most minor transgression of law that you and I might pay a fine for can be the basis for deportation.”

Dion isn’t sure it’s the mayor’s role to advocate for federal change, but he said he’s willing to go to Augusta to ask the state for more help.

“The state has access to data about where there might be housing and jobs,” he said. “We need to intentionally help people relocate to those communities.”

All the mayoral candidates believe that it will be vitally important to work with other municipalities and the state on solving issues related to asylum seekers.



All the candidates said they would like to see more job training options for asylum seekers as they wait to start work. Where they diverge is in their assessment of the city’s role in offering that training.

Dion sees the city as a facilitator, connecting Portland asylum seekers and businesses with the Maine Department of Labor, which can host job trainings.

“They want to go to work, and that ethic is so important. I don’t know many people who are that passionate about working,” Dion said of asylum seekers.

Ali wants the city to be more directly involved in workforce training. He supports the existing job training and language classes offered to asylum seekers through Portland Adult Education, but says that he would work to expand those programs as mayor. He said he’d like all Portlanders to have access to those training and language programs.

Costa wants to see more job training offered not only in Portland but, beyond city limits.


“I’d like to work on strengthening our relationships with surrounding municipalities and the state – so this doesn’t stay a municipal issue but instead becomes a regional issue,” he said.

Pugh envisions a training program through his proposed municipally owned construction company. He has suggested starting such a company to help the city build its own affordable housing stock, and he’d like to see it train – and eventually employ – asylum seekers.

He said he wants to make it clear that he’d prioritize the needs of asylum seekers over the city’s workforce needs. But he sees benefits in connecting the two.

“Asylum seekers are not a monolith and they are not a resource to be used by us in terms of addressing a shortage that we have, but there is a synergy there,” Pugh said.

Zarro said that if it should turn out to be too big a legal risk to offer asylum seekers paid work before they got federal work authorization, he would like to build a more robust job training program so they would be ready to start work in local businesses as soon as their work authorization comes though.

“We have people who are coming here to better their lives and to better their communities. Maine stands to benefit significantly,” he said.

All the candidates also are keenly aware that Portland is in need of more young workers.

“We’re an aging state without enough people to fill the workforce,” Costa said.

Tomorrow: The future of Portland. 

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