Maine’s immigration crisis is only getting worse.
On Friday, news broke that the city of Portland will once again open the Portland Expo to provide temporary shelter to the hundreds of asylum seekers, refugees, and illegal aliens who have arrived in Maine seeking accommodations.
The move suggests there is no end in sight to a migrant wave that began in 2019 — the last time the Portland Red Claws basketball court was repurposed as a migrant shelter. The influx has resulted in thousands of housing insecure migrants who cannot legally work arriving from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, and other nations in the global south.
City officials are increasingly warning that municipal budgets cannot handle the added expense that comes with providing food, shelter, clothing, and assistance to so many new arrivals.
But policy fixes for the crisis have proven elusive.
The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Housing voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend passage of a bill that could represent a step toward letting the foreign nationals, many of whom entered the country illegally, work legally in Maine in the first six months after their arrival.
If passed, the bill would cause the Maine Department of Labor to seek a waiver — a waiver that doesn’t currently exist — from the federal government that would allow some asylum applicants to work.
The bill (LD 1050) was introduced by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), one of the more libertarian members of the Republican Party, but it also has support from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), one of the most liberal politicians in the legislature.
The proposal has a unique blend of partisan support, giving it better odds than the 2,000 other bills under consideration of landing on Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ desk
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) and House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) are both backing the bill.
Proponents say offering migrants work permits will alleviate Maine’s worker shortage and allow homeless, jobless immigrants an opportunity to earn a little economic security. Advocates say allowing them to work is the only way the migrants can begin supporting themselves financially, thereby reducing the strain on the taxpayers.
“We have a workforce shortage. We also have many asylum seekers in Maine who would love to work available jobs,” said Sen. Brakey. “What’s standing in the way? Federal law.”
But opponents of the bill see the work permits as yet another policy that will serve as a magnet attracting migrants across the U.S. to come to Maine in search of friendly policies, like subsidized housing and welfare benefits. Increased migration to Maine, they argue, will further stretch state and local budgets, grow the burden on taxpayers, and exacerbate the already crisis-level housing crunch.
“The reason that asylum seekers are not allowed to work is because historically if they’re allowed to work it operates as a huge incentive for people to cross the border, get a job, and remain in the US while their case languishes in the immigration system,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).
“It’s a little bit appalling that the legislature has given up on the large number of workers in Maine who have dropped out of the labor force, and not learned the lesson in Maine about the availability of workers and the need to compete for them, rather than asking the government to fix it by looking to illegal aliens or newly arrived migrants,” said Vaughan, who is the Director of Policy Studies at CIS.
“What the legislature should be doing is looking not at how they can replace Mainers who are missing from the workforce with migrant workers,” said Vaughan.
“They should be looking at how they can get Mainers back into the workforce,” she said.
Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman testified neither for nor against the bill at Wednesday’s hearing, and Gov. Mills hasn’t offered any signal as to whether she would back the waiver request.
Even if Mills were to sign the bill, or let it become law without her signature, it’s an open question whether the Biden Administration would explore the new legal terrain of allowing one state to hand out work permits to newly arrived asylum seekers.
It’s also not currently known how many individuals LD 1050 would impact. When an asylum seeker has been in Maine longer than six months, they are already eligible to get a work authorization. That means most of the asylum seekers who have arrived in Maine since 2019 are already eligible to work, yet Maine still has a workforce shortage.
It’s also an open question as to whether the work permits envisioned by LD 1050’s backers would alleviate the various crises roiling Maine’s communities or simply exacerbate the very same issues it aims to fix.
MAINE’S MIGRANT CRISIS, 2019-????
Beginning in 2019, Maine experienced a sharp uptick in immigration from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. State and local governments haven’t kept good data on the migrant population, so accurate information about the number of asylum seekers and how they came to Maine is hard to come by.
Local governments, mostly in southern Maine, estimate the number of migrants in the 2019-2023 segment is in the low thousands, with dozens more arriving every day. But no one is really sure. Portland officials told the Christian Science Monitor in July that there were 1,200 migrants in the greater Portland area. City officials have said more recently that 756 migrants have arrived in the area in 2023. However, municipalities don’t identify non-citizens on the General Assistance (GA) rolls — or in any other system — so no one really knows the full scope of the crisis. The Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition (MIRC) estimates there are more than 87,000 immigrants living in Maine, a number that includes refugees, asylum seekers, and illegal aliens.
The difference between the three categories is a key one often lost in debates about how to handle the situation. Refugees are those who have been granted asylum and legal status in the U.S. Asylum seekers are those who are in the process of applying for asylum, a process that can stretch on for five years or more and most often results in a denial. Illegal aliens, or undocumented immigrants, are those who entered the country illegally, did not apply for asylum status, or had their asylum status denied but chose to remain anyways. Maine’s state and local policies, unlike federal laws, usually don’t delineate between the categories, and liberal advocates group them together under the banner of “New Mainers.”
Generally, Maine’s post-2019 policy towards asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented immigrants present in the America illegally has been to provide housing, welfare benefits, health care, and education without asking too many questions. Migrants who have arrived in Maine have been accommodated with a scattered patchwork of local, state, and federal programs, much of which has been facilitated through a jumble of non-profit organizations. The funding has included General Assistance (GA), a taxpayer-funded municipal voucher program that allows the indigent to procure life’s basic necessities, along with federally funded, state-managed social safety net systems. Children have been attending public schools, and Maine’s emergency services and health care facilities have been providing health care, often at no cost.
City officials in Maine’s more liberal southern communities have often touted this approach as a sign of the state’s tolerance and humane values. But the costs of accommodating migrants are mounting, and those same city officials are increasingly sounding the alarm about stretched budgets and the need for additional state funding.
Kate Dufour, speaking on behalf of the Maine Municipal Association, said Wednesday the influx of asylum seekers is increasing the tax burden on residents, but allowing them to work would lessen that burden.
“Over the last year, Maine’s largest communities have experienced significant increases in the number of asylees seeking assistance, primarily through the General Assistance (GA) program,” Dufour told the Labor and Housing Committee.
“Increasing food, fuel, and housing costs, coupled with delays in the processing of federal work permit paperwork, have shifted burdens onto property taxpayers without recourse or additional reimbursement,” she said.
As a result, the combined state and local GA budget has jumped to $32 million for 2023, $23 million of which came from the state funding. In contrast, average annual GA expenditures by the state from 2011 to 2022 totaled $11.2 million per year, according to Dufour.
That $11.8 million comes directly from Mainers who own property or work.
“[M]unicipalities struggle to find housing for new families, English as a Second Language programs are at capacity, social services programs are overwhelmed, and municipal staff are facing burnout, which is fueling workforce retention challenges,” said Dufour.
“These unintended consequences could be avoided if asylum seekers were allowed to work shortly after relocating to the U.S.,” she said.
THE ASYLUM PROCESS & LD 1050
One challenge facing supporters of the LD 1050 is that the waiver they’re seeking does not exist. So implementing the policy would require extraordinary moves on the part of the Biden Administration. Even if that were to happen, there remain unanswered questions about how the asylee work permit program would function in practice.
Foreign nationals who arrive in the U.S. seeking asylum must apply for asylee status within one year of arriving. That application must contain a detailed description explaining their reasons for seeking asylum along with any documentation or supporting evidence. Migrants who do submit an application then go through a background check and interview process. At that point, they enter a six-month waiting period in which they are prohibited from working — the very waiting period LD 1050 would waive. After six months, they typically can get a work permit that’s good for two years and can be renewed. The work permit also comes with a Social Security Number.
However, the statutory waiting period isn’t the only challenge applicants face. In recent years, bureaucratic inefficiencies and political forces have led to delays as long as five years between the date an asylum request is filed and the date the applicant learns of the result. And even after all those years, there is no guarantee of approval. Indeed, the majority of asylum claims will fail.
Asylum claims are broken down into offensive and defensive claims. Offensive claims involve someone who enters the country, legally or otherwise, and declares themself at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within one year. Defensive claims are made by those who enter the country, have a law enforcement encounter, and subsequently say they are seeking asylum in order to avoid deportation. While offensive claims are generally approved at a higher rate than defensive claims, federal statistics analyzed by the University of Syracuse show only 29 percent of all asylum claims were successful under President Trump, and only 37 percent of claims have been successful under President Biden.
In other words, the majority of those described as “asylum seekers” will never obtain legal status as refugees.
Asylum claims are denied for a host of reasons ranging from the trivial — paperwork errors, missed deadlines, or bad attorneys — to the substantive — ineligibility for the program or statements made during an interview that contradict those on the application. Asylum seekers must demonstrate that they have a “credible fear” of returning to their native country as the result of a protected class, such as their political opinions, race, religion, or nationality. Individuals who disclose that they are seeking asylum in pursuit of economic opportunity will likely be rejected.
If the applicant is granted asylum, then he or she may apply for a work authorization, and with that work permit comes a Social Security number. But because the majority of asylum requests are denied, a large percentage of Maine’s “asylum seeker” population is destined for a sort of legal limbo, regardless of what happens with LD 1050. In cases where asylum claims are rejected, migrants can choose to self-deport. Or they can choose to remain in the U.S. without legal status. The extent to which rejected asylum applicants self-deport, as opposed to remaining illegally in the country, is fiercely debated, but credible information on the topic is scarce.
Conservative critics of LD 1050 argue that the six-month waiting period serves an important policy function.
“The waiting periods were originally adopted by the Clinton administration to discourage non-citizens from filing bogus asylum claims as a means of getting a work permit,” said Larry Lockman, a former Republican lawmaker from Amherst.
Lockman is now the President of the Maine First Project, a coalition of conservative Mainers who advocate for the enforcement of existing immigration laws and an end to Maine’s sanctuary policies.
“Asylee status was never intended as a fast track to getting a job in the USA while your application is pending,” said Lockman.
“We know that upwards of 75% of these asylum claims will be denied, and we also know that these illegal immigrants aren’t very likely to self-deport when that happens,” he said.
“Why would legislators want to create another magnet drawing illegals here when we can’t find affordable housing for low-income Mainers who have lived here and paid taxes here all their lives?” he said.