By Karen Cadbury
Photo | Tom Bell
Over the centuries, monarchies, religious groups, and nations around the world have offered the protections of asylum and sanctuary as expressions of moral concern or compassion, as release valves for systems with judicial and social inequalities, and, sometimes, as instruments of political manipulation. The concept of offering a place of safety and protection from state-sponsored violence or death, or of fleeing to another country to find shelter, security, or economic opportunity has endured and evolved. But, in the 21st century, the tragedy of thousands of homeless and displaced people seeking asylum to elude wars, persecution, environmental degradation, and criminal behavior has become an enduring and immutable calamity, proliferating in every region of the world. Today, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 79 million individuals “…have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations” – the highest number ever recorded.
The number of countries offering asylum today is indeterminate, but ranges from about 25 to 60 out of 193 countries worldwide. The United States, since the early 20th century, has maintained a government-supported asylum program. Over the years, depending on the political climate, economics and the country’s involvement in wars, the U.S. has often responded heroically, assisting and resettling many thousands of people after wars and natural disasters. But at other times the leadership has responded harshly to grave, life-threatening requests.
A Brief Look at U.S. Immigration History
In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of Europeans immigrated to the U.S., many fleeing political and religious persecution. There were no restrictions, so those who were healthy and not criminals were usually admitted. In 1875, Congress passed The Page Act and then, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, both of which were highly discriminatory and designed to reduce or eliminate immigration from China and other Asian countries.
In 1920, the U.S. Congress, wanting to curtail Jewish and Catholic immigration from Europe, severely tightened the quotas, and the number of immigrants significantly declined. Beginning in the 1930s, quotas prevented thousands of Europeans from entering the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution. In the 1940s, the Roosevelt administration continually turned away Jews and others fleeing Nazi genocide. In the aftermath of World War II, millions of people all over the world were left homeless and displaced.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman persistently worked to pass the Displaced Persons Act (DPA) in Congress, though he endured much resistance. The DPA offered aid to refugees from the war but, in the form first adopted by Congress, still restricted the number of people who could enter the U.S. (Truman opposed its restrictions, but was not able to get Congress to increase the quotas until 1950.) Also in 1948, in the war’s aftermath, the United Nations General Assembly, with U.S. leadership, created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Historically, no such global document or commitment had ever been attained. The declaration acknowledges “…the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family…[as the] foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It also states that the pledging member countries “…reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.”
In 1951, the United Nations (U.N.) Refugee Convention was held to improve conditions worldwide for refugees. The convention recognized “the right of refugees to seek asylum in other countries.” Thousands of refugees were admitted to the U.S. after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1967, after the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. signed the U.N.’s 1967 Protocol regarding refugees. President Jimmy Carter signed the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 that mandated a process to address the needs of refugees at a time when many thousands of people were fleeing Vietnam. The new act increased the ceiling for refugees. The process established under the Carter administration was used in the U.S. until the Trump administration began making changes in 2017.
In 1990-1991, 65,000 immigrants came to the U.S., primarily from the Soviet republics, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Only 3,000 openings were allocated during this period for the entire continent of Africa, though there were brutal wars going on there in multiple countries. This restriction of immigrants from African countries loosened a bit in 1994, after the massacres and genocide in Rwanda, and more Africans were permitted to apply for refugee or asylee status.
Recent Changes in U.S. Immigration Procedures
The president sets, and Congress approves, annual “ceilings” for the number of immigrants that will be admitted to the U.S. in a given year. Under the current administration, the annual ceiling has fallen from 110,000 in 2017 to 45,000 in 2018 and 30,000 in 2019, a drop of more than 50% in the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2017.
Since 2016, the Trump administration has made significant changes in the systems and procedures used to confirm and approve immigrant applications. While the Trump administration’s changes have affected applicants in all four categories, refugees and asylum seekers have been the most impacted. In recent months, numerous parts of the asylum and refugee application approval processes have been changed.
Since asylum seekers and refugees are fleeing violence and/or persecution, they often do not have financial resources, and must find work to support themselves and their families. The Trump administration has increased the time period that asylum seekers must wait – from 180 to 365 days after they apply for asylum – before they can request employment authorizations (work permits). The administration also recently passed a rule that asylum applicants who do not file their applications within one year of entering the U.S. will not be able to get a work permit at all (other than as an exception). Additionally, since August 25, 2020, those who cross a border and do not present themselves to immigration officers at a port of entry will not ever be eligible for a work permit. Upcoming rule changes also include raises in the fees for filing applications. And the new rules expand the list of crimes that make asylum seekers ineligible for permits.
Additionally, the administration has eliminated the requirement that directed the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) to respond within 30 days to an asylum seeker’s request for a work permit. The process is now open ended, with USCIS deciding the response time for each applicant. Longer wait times and delays in getting responses about work permits means many asylum seekers must depend on family, friends, or General Assistance funds ( a welfare program that helps with basic necessities, such as food, rent, heat, and medical expenses) from individual states for financial support. For many applicants, not having a way of generating income places them in dire circumstances.
The large numbers of people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America have contributed to a logjam of cases and have overwhelmed U.S. detention centers. In response, the Trump administration has made stringent rules for asylum seekers to demonstrate that “…they have a ‘credible fear’ of going home,” and the White House has stressed that the asylum system was intended for political victims of persecution alone, not for victims of gang or domestic violence.
The Picture in Maine
According to the U.S. Census, immigrants made up at least 4% of Maine’s population in 2018 – a total of 47,418 people. Many of Maine’s immigrants arrive with professional experience, training, and degrees – more than one-third have college or advanced degrees, and nine out of 10 speak English ‘well.’ Immigrants comprise 7% of Maine’s employees in the fields of transportation, building maintenance, computers, healthcare, retail sales, education, and manufacturing. They are business owners and taxpayers. In a 2016 study conducted by ILAP and six civil legal aid organizations, University of Maine Professor of Economics Todd Gabe found that over 10 years, the combined earnings of Maine’s immigrant workers – who had obtained legal status and work authorization – reached $6.2 million in earnings. The state of Maine has several well-established immigrant communities, as well as a strong network of allies who are working to welcome and assist new immigrants and mitigate the problems emerging under the new immigration regulations.
Martha Stein is the executive director of Hope Acts, an organization founded in Portland in 2012 that offers asylum seekers housing, individualized assistance, English language training, and special programs to help navigate community and governmental resources. Stein says, “Immigrants have been coming to Maine for years and are well-established in several cities and towns.” She notes Hope Acts primarily serves individuals and families who have recently arrived in the U.S., including asylum seekers. “At Hope House [a program sponsored by Hope Acts], previously homeless adult asylum seekers, who have come to the U.S. on their own, live with others in two and three bedroom apartments.”
Most often, asylum seekers have left everything behind – their homes, communities, and families (with whom they hope to be reunited after they are settled) to find safety, stability, and a better life. Usually these individuals have suffered great losses, endured brutal conflicts, or were victimized in lawless situations.
Stein says that asylum seekers and refugees prefer to find paid work to support and take care of themselves financially but, since they are not American citizens, they need work permits in order to take paid employment. Since they often arrive without money or other resources, they are eligible to receive help for two years through Maine’s General Assistance Program.
“Holding back the ability of immigrants to work is just cruel,” says Stein. “People are crushed and break down in tears when we are talking about this. This doesn’t even make sense. In Maine, local businesses need workers; there is a terrific shortage right now. And many of the new immigrants are taking the hard jobs in the state, working in fields such as manufacturing, and in medical facilities and group homes – in many areas that are high-risk, during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
As the rules have gotten more complicated, Hope Acts has been helping asylum seekers apply for work permits, since many applicants lack English language skills and experience with filling out the government forms. This past summer Hope Acts helped more than 150 applicants apply for work permits.
Beth Stickney, an immigration attorney in Portland, has been working in the immigration field for 35 years. She is the director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition (MBIC), which works with Maine’s business community to advocate for better laws and policies for Maine’s immigrants. She was also the founding executive director of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), and has worked in El Salvador on human rights issues. Recently, Stickney helped craft proposed legislation to expand adult education and to create a job skills program for English Language Learners (ELL). She also helped draft and successfully advocate for state legislation improving options for at-risk immigrant youth.
Stickney has seen “…massive and draconian changes” over the years. “In 1985, when I started working on immigration issues, it was one year before the U.S. Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the law that is commonly referred to now as the ‘amnesty’ law.” The act legalized the status of over two million farmworkers and undocumented immigrants. “I had no idea then that this would be the period when I could help the largest number of people in my career get legal status and become full members of this country, which they were already contributing to in so many ways,.” Stickney says.
“The administration’s rule change, requiring asylum seekers to wait longer than usual before they can apply for work permits, is a great hardship,” she says. “And, even worse, if a person files for asylum a little bit late, or came over a border and into the country without a visa after August 25, he or she will never get a work permit. People are pretty terrified, upset, and angry. They don’t want to rely on charity – they want to work. This is a tremendous attack on asylum seekers’ dignity, and a tremendous waste of their potential, as well.”
The overall pattern of the administration’s changes in immigration policy has been to significantly reduce the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants accepted into the U.S. Stickney says that the changes give the impression they are part of an effort to eliminate the U.S. immigration program, as it has existed since 1965.
“The U.S., Canada, and many European countries have rapidly aging workforces and fewer births,” says Stickney, “and the research shows that reducing the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. is going to eventually cause irreparable damage to the economy.” In response to a shrinking workforce, she says, Canada has liberalized and revised their immigrant laws and set a goal of increasing immigration at the rate of at least 1% a year. “Before the start of the pandemic, Canada, with its progressive immigration policy, was the second fastest growing economy among the industrialized nations.” Stickney also points out that in March 2020, Germany – which, like the U.S., has been experiencing a low birth rate and a shrinking workforce – started instituting immigration reforms, increasing the numbers of immigrants accepted and proactively establishing programs to support immigration.
While there has been general bipartisan agreement for some time that the U.S. immigration system needs reform, Stickney says that under the Trump Administration, the treatment of immigrants and some nonimmigrants – such as temporary foreign workers – has vastly deteriorated. Travel bans, starting with the 2017 ones that were applied to predominantly Muslim countries, have created historically low caps on refugee resettlement. New bans (issued since the onset of COVID-19) have blocked most immigrants and temporary foreign workers from entering the U.S., and unprecedented actions at the southern border are preventing asylum seekers from applying for asylum. These actions have all led to dramatic drops in the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. since 2016.
Stickney says, “To remain vital and keep pace with the rest of the world, we need people from elsewhere, people from other countries with skills and a desire for work.” She notes that this includes
“refugees, asylum seekers, and asylees, immediate family members, and diversity lottery immigrants – all categories of immigrants that the administration seems to be trying to eliminate. “Before 1924, the U.S. immigration system did not designate categories of people who could or could not come to the U.S.,” says Stickney. But after 1924, racism brought about dramatic changes.
“Some citizens didn’t want to admit people of color, and Northern Europeans, with white skin, were given preference. Italians and Greeks (who were considered people of color), people of Jewish descent, and others were highly restricted. Few immigrants from Asia, Africa, or Latin America got in.” This system of discrimination held until 1965 when, under the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 replaced the race-based national origins immigration quotas.
Since 2019, Nsiona Nguizani has been Brunswick’s cultural broker, promoting inclusivity, assisting with relocation issues, and trying to “relieve any fears that may divide the newly arrived asylum-seekers and their neighbors.” He speaks French, Portuguese, and Lingala, and is the president of the Angolan Community of Maine. In 2019, more than 300 asylum seekers relocated to Maine after escaping the wars and violence in their home countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In June 2020, Nguizani helped settle 80 individuals from those countries into the Brunswick area.
Nguizani himself was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2012. Like most immigrants, he had to start over in his education and professional training, even though he had already completed degrees in
Angola and was a mid-career professional. He earned an associate degree in business from Southern Maine Community College and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Southern Maine.
“There are families that are settled here in Maine now,” says Nguizani. “They have houses and food for their families, their kids are in school. But without the ability to work, they suddenly find they must leave. They’ve come here, and now – there are so many different rules – they feel rejected. It is so complex that people have to rely on immigration lawyers to get the information they need.”
Even though the immigrants are located in supportive communities, not being able to work is causing great stress, Nguizani says.
The beauty of Brunswick is the people,” says Nguizani. “There is a lot of support from the community. Every Tuesday a group of retired lawyers meet to help asylum seekers and refugees with the legal issues – they’ve come back into practice to help us. Another group of folks are helping people fill out the applications for work permits, and a third group is helping with education issues.”
Julia Brown, Esq. is the Advocacy and Outreach Director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) in Portland. Before moving to Maine, she served as staff attorney for the Georgia Appellate Practice and Educational Resource Center. She also defended Social Security program-related cases in federal district courts and clerked with the Montana Supreme Court. She says a lot of litigation is being conducted right now to address the administration’s rules. “There are many policies, both already in effect and being proposed, that will make it hard for asylum seekers to get the protections they are entitled to under U.S. and international laws.” But she also points out that the Trump administration’s policies are being challenged. For example, the courts stopped the Third Country Transit Asylum Bar, which prohibited asylum for those who entered the U.S. through the southern border or who failed to apply for asylum while traveling through a country in transit to the U.S. on or after July 16, 2019.
“The new work permit rule is extremely complex and difficult to understand,” says Brown. “The rule will make families even more vulnerable to hunger and homelessness.” ILAP wrote that the new regulation increasing the waiting period for work permits to 365 days will make getting a work permit impossible for people who have crossed the border outside of a port of entry, or who file their asylum application after having been in the United States for one year.
Furthermore, Brown says that the separate ruling that also recently took effect, eliminating the 30-day window in which the U.S. government was required to approve work permit applications, will result in incredibly long waits for approval. “Even those who are still eligible for work permits will have long waits,” she says. “Everyone is on the lookout to see what is going to happen. It’s possible that the courts will stop the implementation of these rules or that Congress could act.” She notes that Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen. Susan Collins have sponsored bills to help shorten the wait period for work permits for asylum seekers. “But no one knows what is going to happen, which makes it extremely difficult for those impacted by the rules,” says Brown.
As the courts have been responding to the administration’s new rulings and making decisions about immigration policy, conditions for immigrants have been in a state of flux, she says. “The new waiting period for work permits is basically punitive and punishes asylum seekers. After filing for asylum, [waiting will] make families even more vulnerable to hunger and homelessness. This cruel policy violates our responsibility to those seeking safety in the United States.”
On October 1 the President proposed to reduce refugee admissions for Fiscal Year 2021 to 15,000 people, which would be the lowest number in U.S. history.