Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa continue to arrive in southern Maine, with many of them crossing the southern border as part of a massive surge in illegal immigration over the past three years.
Portland City Officials told the Maine Wire the city has received 756 new arrivals since Jan. 1, 2023.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says its agents have encountered more than 100,000 individuals crossing the southern border illegally every month since February 2021.
In December alone, CBP reported 251,978 encounters with inadmissible visitors. That’s the most illegal border crossings CBP has ever reported for one month, according to the available data.
While most of the individuals crossing the southern border illegally have historically been from Latin American countries, CBP data shows recent border crossings involve large numbers of migrants who are not from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.
More than 150,000 of those CBP encountered in December were listed in the citizenship grouping “Other,” which includes migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
Local media have reported that many of the families in the current surge have come from Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti.
At least some of those migrants are finding their way to Maine and making a claim of asylum.
Maine’s cities have struggled since 2019 to accommodate the new arrivals, who often rely on General Assistance and municipal services for basic necessities.
The influx of foreign nationals has stretched municipal budgets and resources, with Portland’s Interim City Manager Daniella West saying last month that the city had reached its limit.
“The City of Portland doesn’t have additional facilities we can use in this capacity right at the current moment,” West told WMTW.
This isn’t the first time a Portland city official has said the city is at its maximum capacity.
Last May, Portland Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said in an email to federal officials, including Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, that Portland had no more room:
“I am writing this email to alert you to the fact that as of the date of this email, there is no further shelter OR hotel capacity in Portland, Maine. We have been over capacity in our shelter for quite some time and have now reached the point where the hotels we have been utilizing are also full.
“Please know, that as a result of our capacity limitations, if your organization sends a family to Portland, Maine they are no longer guaranteed shelter upon their arrival to our shelter. Additionally, because our staff are spread quite thin, it is not guaranteed that we will be in a position to aid individuals in their search for emergency housing. I ask that you all share this information widely within your organizations and with families you are working with.“
The message seems not to have worked, as families continue to arrive in Maine seeking accommodations and community.
Asylum seekers in southern Maine are currently being taken care of by a jerry-rigged patchwork of shelters, churches, and hotels. All of them were supposed to be temporary arrangements, but some of them have become homes for going on three years. While various proposal have been made at the state and regional level to construct affordable housing, living space isn’t being built at a rate that can keep up with net in-migration.
Currently, asylum seekers are receiving taxpayer-funded accommodations at several locations in the Great Portland area, a city spokesperson said.
The Oxford St. Shelter is hosting 210 asylum seekers; 77 are currently staying at a Salvation Army facility run by the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition; 86 families, including 325 individuals, are currently staying at hotels in Saco staffed by Catholic Charities; and, 122 families, including 413 individuals, are currently staying at Portland’s family shelter, overflow spaces, or with local pastors.
In South Portland, several hotels just across the bridge from Portland have operated as de facto refugee camps since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A South Portland official said via email the city’s best estimate is that there are 600 asylum seekers staying in the hotels along the Maine Mall Rd.
“It could be closer to 500 or 700, so this is by no means an exact figure, since we do not track this information,” the spokesperson said.
City officials for South Portland and Portland couldn’t immediately say what the total number of arrivals has been during the current wave of migration, which began before the start COVID-19 pandemic. The Portland official said the city doesn’t even keep track of home many foreign nationals are receiving benefits from the city.
South Portland has been providing municipal services, such as police and ambulance, for the asylum seeker hotels, but city officials haven’t been responsible for managing their placements.
The hotels and motels aren’t cheap.
According to South Portland, the taxpayers are paying $7,200 per month per family, with that cost spread between municipal General Assistance and, before last December, federal money.
The asylum seekers living out of hotels and motels had previously had their stays paid for in part by two federal laws, one signed by former Republican President Donald Trump and the other by Democratic President Joe Biden.
That federal funding expired last year, but the state legislature approved last-minute emergency funding to keep the families housed through the winter.
Now rent is coming from state and local taxpayers.
The Department of Homeland Security requested an additional $24 million for 2023, on top of the $150 million appropriated in 2022, in order provide resources to communities absorbing large populations of foreign nationals.
Some of that federal cash has helped offset municipal spending on accommodations.
But resources are used up almost as fast as policymakers and government officials can appropriate them.
The consequence is a government response seemingly lurching from one crisis to the next while the migrant families exist in an uncertain limbo. The uncertainty presents a special challenge for local public schools, which have difficulties foreseeing how many students will enroll in a given year, along with the kind of language-based accommodations they will need to provide.
In South Portland, accommodations for the asylum seekers has been a thorny political issue, with some of the City Council seeking to prevent hotels and motels from accepting migrant populations in the future.
The city has also been debating an ordinance that would allow for one or more homeless shelters to operate within city limits, which would obviate the need for the hotels to serve people experiencing homelessness.
In the longer term, several plans are in the works to develop affordable housing options for the asylum seekers, including 100 units operated by Avesta Housing in Portland and South Portland, plus additional units in Brunswick.
But just as soon as Avesta, the Mills Administration, or some other group announces plans to build affordable housing to address the crisis, more migrants arrive, putting additional pressure on the system before the pressure release valve is even in place. And all that happens against the backdrop of a pre-existing housing shortage and a pre-existing homelessness problem.
Thanks to federal laws which limit how and when asylum seekers can get jobs, the path to financial independence for them isn’t clear.
Under federal law, asylum seekers are prohibited from working until 180 days after they’ve filed their application for asylum.
Then they need to apply for a work authorization, which can take another 12 months to get approved thanks to bureaucratic inefficiencies within the federal government.
If an asylum seeker is able to thread that needle and wait long enough, then they may be eligible to work legally.
However, there’s another fact that Maine’s immigration rights activists typically ignore: the federal government rejects the majority of asylum claims.
The denial rate for asylum claims has decreased under Biden, according to the University of Syracuse, but even in 2020 and 2021, just 29-37 percent of asylum seekers received federal approval.
Those whose asylum claims are denied do not receive legal status and are subject to removal proceedings.
Without permanent legal status, their options are to return to their nation of origin or try to live illegally in the U.S.
In some instances, that means working illegally, often for a lower wage, and only if they can find an employer willing to accept such an arrangement.
Or they can attempt to survive on the public benefits they’re able to collect.
Neither situation is conducive to the kind of financial independence that might one day allow them to pay for their own housing.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have all expressed support for the right of asylum seekers to work in Maine, but nothing has changed at the federal level.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Augusta has plans to formally request a federal waiver from the work restrictions, but people familiar with the legislation aren’t optimistic about the odds of success.
Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) has introduced a bill, co-sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) and House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), that would direct the Maine Department of Labor to apply for a waiver from the federal government’s asylee rules.
Such a waiver would essentially give the green light to Maine employers to begin hiring asylum seekers without fear of stiff penalties for violating federal law. Asylum seekers would be free to work in the six months following an asylum application.
If the federal government denies the waiver request, then the other option would be for Gov. Janet Mills to unilaterally approve the right of the asylum seekers to work in open defiance of federal law.
In the past, cities and states have declared themselves so-called “sanctuary cities” — jurisdictions where federal immigration laws do not apply — so it’s not too big a stretch of the imagination to see something similar unfolding in Maine if the federal government won’t play ball.