As has been reported by MeBIC here and in the mainstream media, in June, a large influx of asylum seekers arrived in Portland after having entered the U.S. from Mexico. The majority of them are originally from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. MeBIC has assisted ILAP, Maine’s only nonprofit provider of free immigration legal aid statewide, in conducting legal intake of these asylum seekers to assess their legal needs. This post will try to answer questions that MeBIC has been receiving about our newest asylum seekers, based on what we know from talking directly with the asylum seekers and our immigration law expertise.
- Q. What is the asylum seekers’ status here in the U.S.?
A. All of the asylum seekers are lawfully here, after being processed and released by border officials. They will be legally here while they request asylum or any other immigration relief they may be eligible for under U.S. immigration laws in front of the immigration court, a process that can take years.
- Q. How did they enter the U.S.?
A. They tried to enter the U.S. legally at a border inspection post. Unfortunately, for more than a year, the U.S. government has been engaging in “metering”- restricting the number of people who can ask for asylum at the southern border posts to only a few people each day. (The government’s use of “metering” is confirmed in this Office of Inspector General report at page 4). People are given a number by U.S. border officials and are told that they have to wait until their number is reached. Some of Portland’s asylum seekers entered legally, after waiting more than three months in Mexico, where they had nothing more than tarps for shelter, for their number to come up. Most of the others waited for about two months before losing hope that their number would ever come up, and then crossed over the Rio Grande, where they turned themselves in to border patrol agents on the U.S. side. “Metering” is a likely violation of U.S. asylum law and of international human rights laws to which the U.S. is a party.
- Q. Can they work in the U.S.?
A. Eventually. Even though they are legally here, harsh federal immigration laws prevent asylum seekers from getting work permits until 180 days after their asylum applications have been filed with the immigration court. Unfortunately, it can typically take months for a person’s file to arrive at the immigration court from the border officials. And for these asylum seekers, border officials randomly (and illegally) picked immigration courts all over the country to send their cases to: San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Omaha, Austin, among others. Almost none of the asylum seekers’ cases were sent to the Boston immigration court, which is the correct court for people in Maine. As a result, almost all of the asylum seekers will have to ask that their cases be transferred to the Boston immigration court, before they’ll have the chance to file their applications for asylum. This complication will delay when they’ll be able to get their work permits by many months.
- Q. Do they want to work?
A. Yes. The asylum seekers that MeBIC spoke with were crestfallen when they learned that they won’t be able to get work permits for perhaps as much as a year. They have traveled for months to get here, often walking for weeks at time. They did not go through their arduous journeys to then be unable to support themselves and their families. They want to work; they don’t want charity. And at a time of increasing labor shortages in Maine, it is a wasted opportunity for them, and for Maine’s employers and economy, that federal law forbids asylum seekers from being able to get right to work.
- Q. Why didn’t they just apply for asylum at the U.S. embassies in their home countries?
A. It isn’t possible to get asylum at the U.S. embassies. Asylum seekers are asking to be legally recognized as refugees, who by definition have been forced to leave their countries due to past persecution or a “well-founded” fear of future persecution. (In the U.S., “refugees” are people who were processed for refugee status while outside the U.S., typically while in refugee camps. The U.S. uses the terms “asylum” and “asylum seekers” for people who apply to be recognized as refugees once they are already at a U.S. border post or are in the U.S.) With limited exceptions that occurred during the Cold War, the U.S. embassies don’t grant asylum.
- Q. Why did they come to the U.S. through the southern border rather than flying into the U.S.?
A. It is virtually impossible for someone who is from a country where the U.S. requires a visa (including all countries in Africa) to get a U.S. tourist or other temporary visa if that person is not at least upper middle class and quite wealthy. Many of the asylum seekers flew to countries in Latin America where visas for entry weren’t required.
- Q. Why didn’t the asylum seekers just stay in Latin America?
A. The U.S. is known around the world as a land of freedom, democracy, and opportunity. Asylum seekers naturally want to go to a country where they believe they’ll be safe and where they’ll have a chance to provide a future for their children. The U.S. has long had that reputation; other countries, rightly or wrongly, don’t have the same standing.
- Q. Why did the asylum seekers have to leave their countries in the first place?
A. Conditions in their countries were intolerable. After years of civil wars, political repression and civil unrest is endemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Learn more here. Similarly, while there has been a recent change in government in Angola, arbitrary detention and political repression continues, as noted here.