A mother and son sleep on mats at the Salvation Army gym. Portland’s head of social services says the number of asylum seekers is now a "crisis situation."
A growing number of families are attempting to flee violence and persecution in sub-Saharan Africa by embarking on a long, difficult and dangerous journey through South and Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the southern U.S. border and asking for asylum.
And many of those who succeed are choosing the same unlikely final destination: Portland, Maine.
About three or four families from African countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo arrive at Portland’s Family Shelter each week after crossing the southern U.S. border, according to David MacLean, the city’s social services director. And many more who have crossed the border but remain in Texas, either being processed in detention centers or staying in temporary shelters, are seeking to get here, according to MacLean and an advocate who runs a shelter near the southern border.
Portland is attracting the newcomers in part, at least, because the city and state are among the few that offer shelter and financial assistance to the immigrants while their asylum cases are being processed.
The arrival of so many asylum seekers in need of support and basic necessities has overwhelmed local services, including the city’s emergency shelter for homeless families. Families are now filling overflow spaces, sleeping on floor mats in a converted gymnasium and cafeteria. Those arriving through the southern border have added to an increased number of other asylum seekers, forcing the city to add staffing and using up funds set aside for basic assistance.
Immigration advocates say there are not enough volunteer attorneys to keep up with the swelling caseload, causing some desperate asylum seekers to jeopardize their applications by relying on other immigrants to help with the complicated legal process.
“It’s really a crisis situation,” MacLean recently told the members of Portland’s legislative delegation.
The shortage of housing and support services does not appear to be discouraging those who want to reach Portland.
The city has been getting calls from detention centers and shelters in Texas about people planning to come here because they heard it was a good place for asylum seekers. Portland’s staff usually tries to explain to officials in Texas that the city only provides emergency services, not a formal asylum assistance program.
“We really need to take that stand because we can’t sustain what is happening,” MacLean said.
While there are no reliable data to measure the trend, an examination of Portland’s shelter numbers, a recent count of asylum applications and interviews with city officials and immigration advocates in Portland and Texas suggest there are roughly 3,000 asylum seekers in Maine, with the vast majority in the Portland area. All agree the number has reached an unprecedented level.
A cartoon plays at a Portland warming center earlier this month. Asylum seekers without access to the city’s limited pro bono attorneys often obtain dubious legal advice from other immigrants.
Staff photo by Brianna Soukup
FAMILY ESCAPED CHAOS IN AFRICA
One 47-year-old native of Angola said he and his family, including his wife and four children ages 7 to 21, left his homeland in August and flew to Cuba after he was tortured by Angolan police.
The flight began a two-month journey, spanning more than 13,000 miles through Central America and Mexico. They took buses, rode horses, crossed part of the Caribbean Sea in a small boat and walked through muddy jungles and over mountains. At times, they paid human traffickers, known as coyotes, to help them. At other times they traveled with other families from Africa.
Matare, who speaks Portuguese and was interviewed with the help of a certified translator provided by the city, said he had originally planned to take his family to a larger U.S. city, such as Washington, D.C., Boston or New York City.
But along the two-month odyssey, Congolese migrants he met told him that Portland, Maine, was a good place to get asylum and that it already had an established and growing community of African immigrants.
His family was separated by authorities in southern Mexico, but most of them were reunited in late October after making their way to Portland’s shelter for homeless families. The exception is Matare’s 21-year-old son, who was sent to and remains in a Florida detention center.
“It was very scary, because I had no idea what would happen to her,” Matare said about being separated from his wife and two of his children. “I know the United States is huge. So I was scared my wife would end up in a different state. But I kept praying and I believe God heard my prayer. I was shocked, happy and very surprised when I saw her.”
After sleeping on the floor in overflow space for about a month, the family members now have bunk beds inside the Family Shelter. They have been unable to find a lawyer to take on their asylum case or try to appeal for the release of their son.
Matare spoke to a reporter under the condition that his full name would not be published because he has two children in Angola and fears that speaking publicly about the Angolan government will put them in danger. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reviewed his immigration and shelter documents from the southern border to verify parts of his family’s journey.
Those who work with Portland’s immigrant community say their story is no longer uncommon.
TEMPORARY VISAS PREFERRED ROUTE
Portland has been a destination for asylum seekers from Africa and other regions for years.
In the past, however, asylum seekers more typically came directly to the United States using temporary visas, such as those issued to tourists, students or workers, and then applying for permission to stay. Advocates say such visas, especially for entire families, have become harder to come by under the Trump administration, which has used a series of executive orders and policy changes to restrict legal immigration.
Deteriorating conditions in African countries experiencing civil war, genocide and political violence are causing desperate families to take more risks in order to escape, said Anna Welch, a Sam L. Cohen refugee and human rights clinical professor at the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Maine School of Law.
“If the only way to get out is to escape down to Brazil, you’re going to get out with your whole family,” Welch said. “That is not a safe journey from (South America). There’s a lot of people who prey on people. It’s expensive, it’s lengthy and it’s dangerous.”
The challenges do not end when the families arrive.
Asylum cases that begin with an entry through the southern border are more challenging legally than cases involving visa holders, because the applicants must defend themselves in court against deportation, rather than making an affirmative asylum claim. Advocates say there aren’t enough attorneys to handle all of the cases.
In addition, unlike refugees who come to the United States with federal resettlement funds and support, asylum seekers are on their own to find food and housing, as well as legal assistance and other services. Asylum seekers also are not allowed to work for at least six months while waiting for their cases to be decided.
It can take months or years for an asylum applicant to get the documentation he or she needs to fill out the application, which must be done in English, and then years more before the application is processed.
PORTLAND OFFERS SHELTER, FUNDING
One thing is clear – word has gotten out about Portland.
Portland has a history of promoting itself as a compassionate and welcoming community for immigrants. It fought successfully to make some noncitizens eligible for state and local assistance, set up an unusual municipal fund to help those who do not qualify, and created a special city office to help integrate new Mainers into the workforce and community. City leaders also are considering a proposal to allow noncitizen residents to vote in municipal elections.
“I’m very comfortable and proud of the rules we have in the city of Portland, which state very clearly we’re a welcoming community,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said. “Our issue isn’t that too many people are coming here – it’s we don’t have the housing to put them in.”
City officials and some immigrant advocates believe that Maine is the only state to pass a law making noncitizens such as asylum seekers eligible for state and local aid. They also believe that Portland is the only city in the country to establish its own publicly financed and administered fund to provide food, clothing and shelter to noncitizens who are not eligible for the state’s General Assistance program – primarily those whose visas have expired and who have not yet filed their asylum applications.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram could not verify that Maine and Portland are unique, but also could not identify equivalent aid programs elsewhere.
It’s not only the assistance that makes Portland a desirable destination. The city now has established communities of families from Africa and other parts of the world, some of whom moved to Portland from larger U.S. cities because of its low crime rate and a community of people with shared languages and cultural identities.
MAINE HAS 3,000 PENDING CASES
There is no official count of asylum seekers coming to Portland or to Maine, and no overall data to compare the flow now with past experience.
But the demand for beds in Portland’s Family Shelter helps tell the story because many asylum seekers arrive with no resources and report to the shelter upon their arrival, officials say. The inflow of families led to record numbers of people seeking refuge in the city’s emergency shelters over the summer, and the trend has only continued.
Earlier this month, there were 199 noncitizens seeking space in the family shelter, and 126 of them had arrived through the southern border.
Five years ago, there were 61 noncitizens in the city’s family shelter and none of them arrived in the country through the southern border.
The surge has pushed the total number of people using Portland’s family shelter on a single night in December from 106 five years ago to 215 this year. And more than 90 percent of the total family shelter population are now asylum seekers.
The people staying in the family shelter today represent a fraction of all asylum seekers who have come to Maine in recent years, however.
Jennifer Bailey, the asylum director of the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to immigrants, said the agency recently learned from immigration officials that Maine had at least 3,000 asylum cases pending. ILAP, working with a panel of 170 attorneys who donate their time, files between 100 and 200 asylum cases a year, she said.
A large percentage of cases are being filed without legal representation, based on data compiled by Syracuse University about immigration cases, including asylum applications.
FAMILIES SLEEP IN OVERFLOW SPACES
In response to the influx, the city has expanded its family shelter to add more units and a warming center and has found overflow space at the nearby Salvation Army and the Preble Street soup kitchen.
On recent nights, the family shelter has filled to its capacity of 151 people. An additional 75 or more people, including young children, have been sleeping on thin mats placed on the floor at two overflow locations.
Earlier this month, 199 noncitizens sought space at Portland’s Family Shelter, compared with 61 five years ago. The surge of asylum seekers means many must sleep in overflow spaces, and scarce affordable housing is keeping them in shelters for longer periods. Above, migrants prepare for bed at the Salvation Army gymnasium.
City officials say they have invested about $108,000 in roughly a dozen permanent and as-needed staff members to help meet that demand. The staff sets up those spaces each night and then breaks them down each morning so the rooms can again be used as a gymnasium and dining room.
Families who are forced to sleep in the overflow spaces cannot stay during the days and spend time in warming shelters, eating at soup kitchens and struggling to find good legal advice.
A lack of affordable housing is keeping people in the shelters for longer periods. Families now spend an average of three months in the shelter before securing housing. That’s an increase from an average stay of two months five years ago and three weeks in 2006.
Immigrants who come through the southern border and ask for asylum can legally qualify for General Assistance under Maine law, meaning city and state funding is available for basic needs such as rent, heat or medicines.
In September, 273 asylum seekers received an average of $460 each in General Assistance support, according to the city. Because asylum seekers are not allowed to work for an extended period, they typically need about twice as much assistance as other recipients of the aid, according to the city.
It’s not just noncitizens who come through the southern border who are straining Portland’s resources.
City officials say that other immigrants who originally came to the United States with temporary visas also are moving to the city in larger numbers. And some of them are relying on a separate city assistance fund set up to support noncitizens who are not eligible for state General Assistance because they have not yet formally filed asylum applications.
The City Council allocated $200,000 to that fund for the current fiscal year, which began in July. But nearly half of that money was used up in the first three months, and spending has continued at an unprecedented rate, according to city officials.
“We’ve been looking at these trends since January and it’s increased,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “We’re at a crisis situation now in the city of Portland.”
MIGRANTS RECEIVE BAD LEGAL ADVICE
Meanwhile, the shortage of pro bono attorneys to handle asylum claims may also compound the pressures on public assistance.
When asylum seekers cannot find legal help, some turn to other immigrants who may provide bad legal advice, threatening their chances of moving their cases forward and ultimately winning asylum.
Bailey, ILAP’s asylum director, could not provide an estimate for how many cases her organization is not able to represent. But she said some asylum seekers who can’t get an attorney are being exploited by people in the community who request large sums of money to help them fill out forms and often provide bad legal advice.
“It really hurts the people,” Bailey said. “It’s too many people and not enough resources.”
Welch agreed. “Many are desperate, and we need more lawyers to take on cases,” she said.
Portland city officials recently met with state legislators from the city to ask them to get help from the state, a request that is likely to end up in legislative proposals in the new year.
Prospects for increased state aid may be higher with Democrats about to take over state government, but it’s unclear how soon relief may come. And if the city begins running over its budget, Jennings said the City Council may have to intervene.
The strain on public resources also is leading to questions about the city’s policies and whether it should bear the burden alone.
City Councilor Kimberly Cook is hoping the city will review its social service policies, especially given that Portland is providing a regional, national and, in some cases, international service. With Maine being the oldest and one of the whitest states in the nation, Cook supports immigration as a way to solve the state’s demographic and workforce challenges, noting that many asylum seekers are educated professionals.
But Cook said the city needs to discuss how much of a burden should be placed on local taxpayers, especially because only a third of the people staying at Portland’s adult shelter are former Portland residents and more than 90 percent of the people staying at the family shelter are noncitizens. She believes a public discussion about the costs of providing these services, as well as the potential benefits of helping to integrate these individuals into the community, will compel the state and other municipalities to share the expenses, something they have historically been unwilling to do.
“I think it’s an important conversation to have and I hope we do have it,” Cook said. “My sincere belief is we will do better by everyone – those who live and pay property taxes in Portland, our whole state and those who are seeking to come here and be part of our community – if we think of all the folks who should be helping. To the extent we use Portland property tax dollars to expand social service programs that are statewide and regional in nature does not serve our constituents well.”
As crowded as the city’s shelter system is now, the wave of in-migration does not appear to be ending.
TEXAS GIVES NOD TO ‘HEROIC WORK’
Jennifer Long runs an immigrant shelter in Austin, Texas. Long estimated there were well over 100 African migrants in that shelter who have expressed a desire to come to Portland, roughly the same number of people who have already come through the southern border and are staying in Portland’s family shelter and overflow spaces.
The number was so high, she called city officials a few weeks ago to ask if they were ready for the influx. It was then that she learned Portland does not have a formal program for housing and providing legal assistance to asylum seekers, and that city officials and pro bono attorneys were struggling to keep up with demand for shelter and assistance.
Long said she was “shocked” to hear that Maine and Portland are providing public assistance to noncitizens, saying it was “beautiful” and that the city was doing “heroic work.”
“It is my belief that Maine is the only state that is doing that and that is why people are drawn there,” said Long, who is trying to establish a national support network for asylum seekers. “If you’re doing good work, the word spreads – this is the digital age. We’re trying to do our part not to overwhelm the system there, but it’s really word-of-mouth and a lack of other places for people to go that draws people there.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: