Helping our Newest Asylum Seekers – An Investment in Maine’s Future

UPDATE re: How to help.  Donations of items are no longer requested at this time.  For volunteer opportunities and updates on other needs, see the United Way of Greater Portland’s volunteer opportunities page.

Learn more about the recent asylum seekers below, and find more ways to help here .

In the past two weeks, about 300 asylum seekers, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have arrived in Portland after having entered the U.S. via the southern border.

These are not ordinary people.  They are people who not only had the courage to leave everything they knew and loved behind when conditions in their home countries threatened their lives and prospects, but also had the drive and determination to travel thousands of miles to South America and then thousands more, much of it on foot, to get to the U.S.   This was their destination because much of the world still views the U.S. as a country that offers freedom, democracy, safety, and opportunity.  Anyone who has made it this far is extraordinary, and will have much to contribute to their new chosen home.

As a longtime immigration lawyer, I was recently at the Expo, where the asylum seekers are temporarily sheltered.  I was volunteering with ILAP, Maine’s only nonprofit legal aid provider offering free asylum and other immigration law assistance, to provide legal information and triage the asylum seeker’s  immediate immigration law needs.   What I saw was heartening.

First, the outpouring of community support, from individuals, including many of Maine’s immigrants, organizations, and from state and city staff, is something of which Mainers can be proud.   This unexpected situation required all hands on deck, and the community has responded in kind.

Second, these asylum seeking individuals are all of working age, and can’t wait to become productive (even though federal law will prevent them from getting work permits for more than a half-year, unfortunately).   Individuals who arrived in the U.S. less than two weeks ago were already trying to learn English and were happy to practice the words they had learned so far as we spoke.  Many of them have school-age children who were playing, or sleeping, or eagerly trying to read donated children’s books.

These individuals are Maine’s future.  Maine’s population is aging, and our workforce is shrinking.  In every Maine county but two, there have been more deaths than births for several years running, and net population loss.  In Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, population is slightly up, or holding steady, due to the arrival of immigrants over the past two decades – immigrants just like these newest arrivals, who are both of working and childbearing age.

While Maine works hard to incentivize young adults to come to or stay in Maine through slick ad campaigns and promises of student loan forgiveness, immigrants are already coming, based on word of mouth of those who have come before them that Maine is welcoming, and safe, with good schools for their children. They bring vitality to our communities, growth to our workforce,  a new generation of Mainers to our schools, and a bright economic future.  They are Maine’s newest generation of workers, taxpayers, consumers, entrepreneurs, volunteers, neighbors, friends, family, and civically engaged citizens.

Nearly 90% of the job openings anticipated through 2024  in Maine will be due to baby boomers retiring.   Our labor shortage is already causing some businesses to hold steady or contract rather than grow, or to move out of state.   Whatever investment Maine puts into helping these asylum seekers in the short term is an investment in our long-term economic future.   Here’s how you can help in the short term. 

For the long-term, we must recognize that investing in these asylum seekers is not a Portland issue, but a statewide one.   We need to convene a big tent to discuss helping immigrants settle throughout Maine, where there are communities that are aging and shrinking and struggling to be reborn.  This big tent should include public and private partners, including state agencies, city governments, businesses and leaders such as chambers of commerce and economic development groups, nonprofit service providers, philanthropists, and immigrants.   Maine needs to tackle how to make sure that communities that want to welcome immigrants have the infrastructure to both attract, retain and integrate immigrants so that they, and as a result, their new communities, can succeed.  Portland is just many immigrants’ first stop, but it need not be their last.   The State and other communities should invest in immigrants as Portland and Lewiston have, and they’ll benefit, as have both Portland and Lewiston.

Contact MeBIC if you want to be a part of this discussion .