Facts about the Recently Arrived Asylum Seekers in Portland

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.



Census 2020 Citizenship Question Update

UPDATE,  July 11, 2019:   After nearly two weeks of back and forth from the Justice Department lawyers litigating the case and the President, on whether the administration was going to stop pursuing adding the citizenship status question to Census 2020, or going to try to do an end run around the Supreme Court’s opinion blocking the question,  President Trump announced today that he will no longer fight to add the citizenship status question to the Census form.  Instead, he is instructing the government to mine all of its databases to obtain the information about who is a citizen and who isn’t.

This raises a host of issues including concerns about the rationale for this effort and its costs, privacy concerns, and concerns about accuracy.    The President mentioned scouring Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Social Security databases among others.   But inaccuracies abound in those databases.  For example, a person who immigrated as a child who became a citizen automatically when her parent naturalized would still appear in USCIS’s database as a permanent resident, not as a U.S. citizen.   A person who received a Social Security card while a refugee who has since become a permanent resident and then a citizen will still be in Social Security’s database as a refugee.

Again – query what the rationale is for this effort? Our country prides itself on the ideal of not drawing lines between classes of individuals, even if it frequently fails to meet that aspiration.   This effort feels like the beginning of an official shift to create divisions and treat people differently depending on their status.   Food for thought.

In the meantime, the fight over the citizenship question on Census 2020 reportedly has sown sufficient distrust of the census that there may be a substantial undercount even without that question appearing on the form.

The Constitution calls for all people who live in the U.S. to be counted every 10 years.  It is unfortunate that this prolonged fight may have undermined the Census bureau’s ability to fulfill that mandate in 2020.

July 3, 2019:  Just days after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration’s stated rationale for adding a citizenship status question to the 2020 decennial census strained credulity and sent the case back down to the lower court, the Justice Department informed that court during a telephonic hearing that the administration was dropping the effort to add the question.   The Secretary of Commerce, in whose department the Census Bureau resides, also issued a statement that the Census Bureau would begin printing the Census 2020 questionnaires without including the question.

The Census Bureau has stated that it needs to begin printing the forms in July to have them ready for the start of the census in 2020.

According to lawyers representing the plaintiffs, the presiding judge in the federal court case requested that the government confirm its withdrawal in writing.  The judge’s caution appears to have been warranted, because less than 24 hours later, according to news reports, President Trump contradicted the Justice Department and his Commerce Secretary, tweeting that the administration would continue its efforts to add the question to the census.

There is expert consensus that adding the citizenship question to Census 2020 would result in a significant undercount of the U.S. population, which would be damaging for all the reasons that we’ve described previously here.

Stay tuned to learn which position will prevail – the President’s or the Justice and Commerce Departments’.



Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act Passes House

On July 10, 2019, in a rare showing of bipartisan unity,  the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1044, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019 by a 365 to 65 majority vote.

Current immigration law imposes not only numerical limits on most categories of employment-based immigrant visas issued annually, but also per-country limits.  These have resulted in wait lists for green cards for high-skilled immigrants from certain countries, such as India or China, that can exceed a decade, harming U.S. businesses in the global competition for talent.   H.R. 1044 would phase in changes leading to elimination of the per country limits by FY 2023.

Maine’s Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden both joined the majority to vote in favor of this common sense bill.    A companion bill of the same name in the Senate, S. 386, currently has 36 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Maine’s Senator Susan Collins.

Maine’s business community should encourage our senators to work for swift passage of this bill in the Senate.   With its bipartisan support and the benefits it would have for U.S. businesses and the economy, there’s no reason to wait.

Maine’s Labor Shortage Reaching Crisis Levels – Congress Should Act

A July 7, 2019 article in the Portland Press Herald highlights the growing labor shortage impacting Maine’s businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry and other sectors that rely on seasonal labor.  In case you missed it, you can read it here.

Steve Hewins of Hospitality Maine sounded the alarm in the article, stating “I always refer to tourism as kind of the tip of the spear of economic development, because it’s the thing that introduces people to Maine, perhaps to relocate here, perhaps to move a company here or work here,” he said. “So if we have a problem handling that, it’s going to impact beyond just hospitality.”

Dana Connors, CEO of MeBIC partner the Maine State Chamber of Commerce added that “in a recent survey of about 1,200 Maine businesses….three of the top five problems cited by respondents were workforce-related. The problem isn’t limited to any one industry or region of the state.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of Maine residents holding DACA or TPS status who are living and working here legally have only court orders standing between them and the loss of their legal status and the requirement to leave the U.S.    Nationwide, about 1.1 million others are in their same position.    The House of Representatives passed H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act, that would provide a path to permanent residency for them.   Maine businesses should tell our Senators to take up companion legislation as one step towards stemming Maine’s, and the nation’s demographic and labor crisis.

Additionally, Maine’s recently arrived asylum seekers want to work but federal laws prevent them from doing so for at least 180 days after they apply for asylum.   Maine’s Representative Chellie Pingree has introduced legislation to allow issuance of work permits 30 days after filing for asylum.   Maine needs workers, and immigrants, including asylum seekers, want to work.  Congress should make that happen.

Detention at the Southern Border

On July 2, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a new report on Dangerous Overcrowding and Prolonged Detention of Children and Adults in the Rio Grande Valley. This report follows on the heels of another report MeBIC from May 30, 2019, finding similar dangerous conditions in several other detention centers on the southern border.

In response to the concerns raised in the OIG’s July report, the Department of Homeland Security, at Appendix A of the report, cites to the overwhelming number of individuals crossing the border, noting that multiple months of more than 100,000 arrivals was “overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond.”

Yet, the government has  decades of experience in dealing with similar numbers of individuals arriving over the southern border, without it devolving into a similar detention crisis.   Customs and Border Protection data shows that from 1983 through 2006, in all but 5 of those years, more than a million people were apprehended on the southern border annually. During 9 of those years, apprehensions averaged in excess of 100,000 per month.  (Border crossings fell dramatically in 2007 and subsequent years due to the recession, which yielded sharp drops in Mexican border crossers.)

As this analysis from the Cato Institute points out, the current detention crisis is one of the government’s own making.   Conditions on the southern border do not have to be this bad.    Query whether this is the result of incompetence, negligence, or malevolence.