Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order Wednesday that will lead to the creation of a new state office intended to facilitate the resettlement of migrants in Maine.
The order directs the Governor’s Office of Policy, Innovation and the Future to present a plan as to how it will develop an “Office of New Americans” that will work to ensure migrants are properly integrated into Maine’s economic and civic life.
Throughout Gov. Mills’ tenure in office, the state and large municipalities in southern Maine have struggled with the influx of thousands of migrants, mostly from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti.
The government lockdowns initiated in response to COVID-19 added a new layer of complications to managing the migrant crisis, but it also brought federal money that the state used for housing migrants at hotels, motels, and shelters.
Now, the federal money has disappeared. The state is picking up more and more of the cost of providing food and shelter to unhoused migrants, including several hundred who are currently living out of the Portland Exposition Building.
Most of the migrants speak little English, have little money, and have no living arrangements when they arrive in Maine. As a result they are heavily dependent on taxpayer-funded resources for the poor and charity services.
For the better part of four years, Maine’s response to the migrant crisis has been a disjointed hodgepodge of federal, state, and local policies, with government officials lurching from one crisis to the next.
City officials have mostly been left to fend for themselves and hope that the state or federal government will help out with the costs.
City leaders in Portland have said multiple times over the past year that their resources have been stretched to the breaking point.
The city estimates that more than 1,600 migrants have arrived just this year, but the current influx of migrants began in 2019, the first year the Expo Building was converted into a makeshift shelter.
In South Portland, the city council this summer passed a new ordinance disallowing lodging establishments from operating as de facto homeless shelters or migrant camps, though it did later strike an agreement to allow one hotel to continue accommodating migrants.
At the same time Maine’s communities have struggled to provide shelter, food, health care and education to the migrants that have already made it to Maine, the flow of new migrants across the southern U.S. border, and into Maine, has remained steady.
The problem has been exacerbated by the U.S. government’s inability to stem the flow of illegal border crossings at the southern border. The number of illegal border crossings has surged under the Biden Administration, and Biden Administration has given little indication that changing that trend is a top priority.
Like cities in southern Maine, New York City has also received a large share of migrants in recent years. As a result, the city’s ability to provide shelter has been all but exhausted, with many migrants this week being forced to sleep outside on the sidewalk.
In an unusual turn for a Democratic official, New York City Mayor Eric Adams earlier this week forcefully called for the Biden Administration to properly control immigration across America’s borders.
“We need to control the border,” Mayor Adams said at a press conference.
Adams approach stands in stark contrast to that of Maine’s state and city leaders. Maine officials, with the exception of Rep. Jared Golden (ME-CD2), have mostly avoided taking a position on the bigger national debate over open borders and immigration reform.
There seems to be some agreement that Maine should pursue a waiver from the federal government that would allow migrants to work as soon as they set foot in Maine.
However, that waiver does not yet exists and even if it did, it’s not clear that it would have a meaningful impact. Plus there’s the added concern that easing work requirements, in addition to other benefit programs in Maine, would create a powerful incentive for more migrants to make their way here.
Most of the migrants will apply for asylum status with the federal government. After six months, they’re eligible for work authorization regardless of whether their asylum claim is approved. That means the vast majority of asylum applicants currently living in Maine are already eligible to work legally.
In recent years, federal records show that the majority of asylum applicants have had their claims rejected. Although asylum application rejections have decreased under the Biden Administration, more than half are still rejected. When an asylum claim is rejected, a process which could take several years, migrants are expected to self-deport.
Here’s what the executive order said:
The Governor’s Office of Policy, Innovation and the Future is hereby directed to:
- Deliver a plan to the Governor for establishing a new state office dedicated to supporting the long-term economic and civic integration of immigrants in Maine, in support of goals set forth in Maine’s 10-year Economic Strategy, no later than January 19, 2024. The plan must outline the mission and structure of the office, the timing of its establishment, and the scope of its work, with the overarching goal of ensuring that Maine is effectively incorporating immigrants into its workforce and communities to strengthen the economy over the long-term.
- Engage with immigrant communities for input on needs, barriers, and opportunities for New Mainers;
- Gather input from business leaders, municipal and regional government leaders, educational institutions, community-based organizations, and service providers on the barriers, and opportunities for welcoming New Mainers into Maine’s workforce, economy, and communities;
- Coordinate plan development with the following state agencies and entities: Department of Economic and Community Development; Department of Labor; Department of Health and Human Services; Department of Education; Department of Professional and Financial Regulation; Department of Administrative and Financial Services; MaineHousing; the Maine Community College System; and the University of Maine System;
- Participate, on behalf of the State of Maine, in the Office of New Americans State Network to access information and best practices from other states on topics including the role of education and training institutions, licensing system coordination, housing and shelter models, support for municipalities and employers, and relevant state and local systems necessary to support families and workers to successfully engage in communities and the workforce.