Maine’s share of asylum seekers has grown in recent years, and Portland – Maine’s largest city – is the landing spot for the vast majority of these newcomers, with Lewiston also seeing a growing population of asylum seekers. Some Mainers look on the presence of these newcomers as a gain for the state and believe that resources to help them integrate into the workforce are well spent and should be increased. Others believe Maine would be better off being less generous to asylum seekers, and should encourage them to pack up and go somewhere else.

The Wall Street Journal added fuel to an already-simmering fire with an article published in late January 2019 that quoted David MacLean, administrator of Portland’s Social Services Division, saying that the number of asylum seekers in Portland was depleting the city’s resources. Laura Ingraham and Stuart Varney of Fox News picked up the story, and interviewed Paul LePage on air. This gave him a platform to share his stated belief that immigrants are a sum-negative for Maine. On December 23, 2018, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran a story by Randy Billings with the headline “Asylum seekers travel to Portland in droves, overwhelming city services.”

Exact numbers of asylum seekers are elusive, since they are not resettled by a National Voluntary Agency Partner with regular, systematized intakes, as is the case with refugees. Desperate to flee war or persecution in their homelands, asylum seekers in Maine have historically arrived in the United States on a visa, and then found their way to a city on their own, to file for asylum, which is legal according to both international and domestic law. Most recently, asylum seekers have been entering through the U.S. southern border, then heading to Maine. According to the same Maine Sunday Telegram article, “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.”

Hannah deAngelis, Director, Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities Maine, says, “although numbers appear to be increasing, the increase does not seem dramatic … more of a shallow incline than a sudden rise.” The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) estimates that “over the last decade the number of asylum seekers in Maine has grown from a couple of dozen individuals per year to more than 4,000 (currently in Maine).” According to Maine Public Radio in 2017, Lewiston’s asylum-seeker population has grown as well. “Figures released by the city show that in 2014 there were 78 asylum seekers in Lewiston. The year after that, 113, and last year nearly 200 people identified as asylum seekers.”

Reached by telephone February 10, 2019, and asked to comment, Portland Mayor Ethan K. Strimling said, “I’m not worried about the numbers – we need as many immigrants as we can get. What I’m worried about is that we are not doing as much as we should be to provide resources for the immigrants who come.” Mayor Strimling pointed out that 75% of Portland’s population growth in recent years is due to immigrants, and he said Portland needs this growth. “If we didn’t have these newcomers, one-third of our schools would be closed. I get calls every day complaining about a shortage of workers to fill jobs. Wex is moving in and will need 1,000 new people to fill their jobs. We need workers in Portland.”

Strimling points to housing as one of the key resources in short supply, and advocates building more housing instead of discouraging asylum seekers from heading to Portland. He is convinced that providing housing would fuel Portland’s continued economic growth.

Leopold Ndayisabye is president of the Rwandese Community Association of Maine (RCAM). He arrived as an asylum seeker in 2011 with a degree in social work. He is now a U.S. citizen with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Southern New Hampshire University. Mr. Ndayisabye agrees that Portland’s growth is tied to welcoming newcomers. “Asylum seekers began arriving in significant numbers in Maine in 2011. The same period has seen strong economic growth in the city, and this is not complete coincidence…. The real estate business is booming. Banks, credit unions, car dealerships, grocery stores, microbreweries, and the tourism industry are all thriving. Portland has become a destination city, and bankruptcy is definitely not an issue.”

Mayor Strimling chastised the Wall Street Journal for not properly doing its research. The article portrayed city shelters as occupied almost entirely by immigrants, with needy locals being pushed out. In fact, according to Strimling, only the Family Shelter is majority immigrant-occupied. Many other shelters have no more than a 10% immigrant occupancy rate. “And,” he adds, “we are grateful for these families who are moving here. We need these families.”

State Representative Michael F. Brennan of District 36 in Portland agrees with Mayor Strimling. This legislative session, he is sponsoring a bill to set up an immigrant council. This would ?allocate money to help immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers get the language training, job skills training, credentialing support, housing, and food support they need, once they arrive in Maine, to quickly enter the workforce and become integrated into the community. “Half of the immigrants who come to Maine have college degrees already – General Assistance is not what they need. They need focused help getting into the workforce so they can sustain themselves.”

The Maine Association for New Americans (MANA) also rejects the idea that immigrants are primarily “service recipients”. MANA collaborates with Maine’s immigrant associations and policy makers to improve how we welcome and integrate asylum seekers into the economy. Whereas immigrant STEM workers often wait years to meet their U.S. peers and longer to find work in their field, MANA proposes, whenever possible, replacing shelter stays with professional “home stays” and hosting “Mingles” that connect them with their industry peers — helping them quickly find work in their field, rather than getting stuck in unskilled jobs.

Coastal Enterprises, Inc.’s 2016 report Building Maine’s Economy states, “Maine faces extraordinary demands to replace an aging and retiring workforce. At 4.0% unemployment in December 2015 (and 2.6% in Greater Portland), Maine is already at ‘full employment’ making it increasingly difficult for employers to find and recruit qualified workers. New immigrants (foreign-born residents) from across the globe represent a growing and younger segment of Maine’s population and a critical source of talent and labor needed to replace Maine’s retiring workforce. They will also grow Maine’s economy through tax-base expansion, increased demand for goods, and business creation.” Citing the demographics of Maine’s aging local population, and the advanced education and skills many immigrants could bring to the workforce, the report concludes, “Maine needs to elevate immigrant attraction, integration, and retention into the economy as an important component of its economic development strategy.”

According to The New American Economy’s 2016 report, The Contributions of New Americans in Maine, “In Maine, immigrants held about $954 million in spending power in 2014, defined in this brief as the net income available to a family after paying federal, state, and local taxes.” A report commissioned by Portland’s Office of Economic Development and the Portland Chamber of Commerce, published in August 2018, states that immigrants in the Portland metro area contributed $1.2 billion to the area’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016 and paid $133 million in federal taxes and $62 million in state and local taxes. They also contributed $57.3 million to Social Security and $14.7 million to Medicare.

Jennifer Bailey, Esq., Asylum Program Director at ILAP, spoke about “the harrowing journeys faced by families fleeing persecution and the value that asylum seekers add to our communities.” She also pointed out that Maine does not have enough immigration lawyers to serve the asylum seekers currently in the state. “The Trump administration and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spent much of 2018 dismantling due process and other legal protections for immigrants, especially asylum seekers. These additional hurdles make it even more important for asylum seekers to have the benefit of legal counsel to defend themselves. I run a pro bono panel for Maine’s only immigration law non-profit and attorneys in Maine have been very generous in volunteering their service. Unfortunately, the demand always outpaces our ability to provide free legal services to all those in need. We try to fill this gap by offering self-help workshops explaining the asylum law and process for people who have to go forward without a lawyer.”

According to the January 9, 2019, Washington Times, Scott Odgen, spokesperson for Governor Janet Mills, said, “Gov. Mills wants to send a clear message: Maine is a great place to live, work and raise a family – it’s a great place to call home.” The governor has spoken many times about the importance to Maine’s economy of attracting people to live in the state, including young people. Increasing diversity would be an incentive for young people from other states to move to Maine. Sara Ewing Merrill, executive director at Greater Portland Family Promise, notes that she sees enthusiasm “for engaging with diversity — people want opportunities to engage with people who are different. Younger people moving here form relationships with immigrant newcomers.”

As Mayor Strimling says, “The problem Portland has is not that asylum seekers come here to make new homes. The problem is that we are not doing as much as we should be to welcome them. Maine needs as many immigrants as we can get!” Clearly, providing more affordable housing, pro bono legal services, and effective programs for integrating qualified immigrants into professions that match their skill-sets should be the focus of Maine’s efforts to improve the welcome we extend.

By Kathreen Harrison, Managing Editor