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.  Are the asylum seekers in the U.S. legally?

A.  Yes.  All of the asylum seekers are lawfully here, after being processed and released by border officials. The U.S. complies with international laws created after WWII to ensure that never again would anyone fleeing persecution not have a chance to ask for safe haven in another country. In 1939, the U.S. would not let Jews fleeing Europe disembark from the ship St. Louis to seek safety here. The ship was forced to return to Europe, and hundreds of its passengers were eventually killed in Nazi concentration camps. Now, U.S. asylum law lets people apply for protection in the U.S. regardless of how they arrive at or enter the country. While their cases are in process with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), or in front of the immigration courts, which may take many years, they are lawfully here.

  • Q.  Can they work in the U.S.?

A. Eventually. It will likely be about a year before they get their federal work permits.  Federal immigration laws prevent asylum seekers from getting work permits until 180 days after filing their asylum applications with the immigration court. But first, their case files must be sent by border officials to, and must arrive at, the correct immigration courts. Unfortunately, border officials randomly assigned almost all of these asylum seekers’ cases to immigration courts all across the country. They will have to ask that their case files be transferred to the Boston immigration court, the correct court for Maine cases, before they can file their applications for asylum. This will at least double the usual 180 day delay for getting their work permits, and their ability to work.

  • Q.  Do they want to work?

A.  Yes.  The recent asylum seekers are eager to work. Due to federal law and the process described above, they are not legally able to work at this time. Many have readily transferable skills, such as accountants, electricians, and engineers, and all of them are eager to do any work that’s needed in Maine and will support their families. All of the adults are of prime working age, with most of them between the ages of 25 and 40. 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 immediately.

  • Q.  What work-related activities and training are they permitted to do they do while waiting for their work permits?

A. There are several work-readiness steps the asylum seekers can take before getting their work permits. First, they can study English and take other courses to help them be work ready, they can volunteer, they can have their skills assessed for transferability, and they can participate in job skills programs that do not require federal work authorization. They can’t receive any compensation for volunteering or training. Under federal immigration law, any kind of exchange for services, including meals or housing, is prohibited.

  • 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.  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.

  • 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.  In fact, 44% of refugees admitted to the U.S. so far this year are from the DRC.  Learn more here.  Similarly, while there has been a recent change in government in Angola, arbitrary detention and political repression continues, as noted here.

This Texas Monthly article gives  a glimpse of part of the asylum seekers’ journey to Maine.