The presence of asylum seekers in the United States is both a humanitarian challenge and a political flash point in a divided country.
Asylum seekers, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, occupy almost every room at a Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland, Maine.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
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SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — At a modest hotel a few miles from the ocean here, most of the rooms have been occupied this summer by families from African countries seeking asylum — 192 adults and 119 children in all.
They are among the more than one million undocumented immigrants who have been allowed into the country temporarily after crossing the border during President Biden’s tenure, part of a record-breaking cascade of irregular migration around the world.
Distinct from the hundreds of thousands who have entered the country undetected during Mr. Biden’s term, many of the one million are hoping for asylum — a long shot — and will have to wait seven years on average before a decision on their case is reached because of the nation’s clogged immigration system.
The hotel in South Portland is among a handful in the region, in addition to Portland’s family shelter, that are offering temporary housing for hundreds of new immigrants. Maine is unusual in that it allows asylum seekers to receive financial support for rent and other expenses, in part through its General Assistance program. But the challenge has been steep; in May, officials in Portland announced that the city could no longer guarantee shelter for newly arrived asylum seekers because emergency housing was at capacity.
“The community is growing so big that the word is traveling that we are helping,” said Mike Guthrie, the director of Portland’s family shelter. “So more people are coming.”
While immigration is among the country’s most hotly debated political issues, the focus is almost always on the surging numbers of people seeking to cross the southwestern border. Less attention has been paid to what happens to those who get released from government custody to lawfully await immigration court hearings and who end up scattered around the country. Some disappear into the shadows, never showing up for their court dates or required check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others struggle to comply with reporting requirements in a system that is ever more overloaded and unorganized.
Their presence is both a humanitarian challenge and a political flash point for a divided country that has failed for decades to agree on who should be admitted, and for what reasons. It takes about a year before the federal government grants asylum seekers permission to work, and there is no designated funding to help support them in the meantime, as there is for refugees. But as the debate rages with little progress toward new laws, these immigrants are integrating into American communities big and small, sending their children to public schools and eventually paying taxes and contributing to the economy.
The million who have been allowed in since Mr. Biden took office — a figure that comes from internal Homeland Security data and court filings — are from more than 150 countries around the globe. With few pathways to enter the United States legally, crossing the border without documentation is often the only option for those fleeing crime and economic despair.
Under a pandemic-driven public health rule, migrants have been turned away at the U.S. border 1.7 million times since Mr. Biden took office, a figure that includes some people who have attempted to cross multiple times. But the United States has allowed others to stay temporarily for a range of reasons, including because Mexico or their own countries will not take them back. Nearly 300,000 of those who have been allowed in — including many heads of families — have been outfitted with tracking devices so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep tabs on their whereabouts while they await their day in court.
“While the immigration system is badly broken, D.H.S. is managing it responsibly, safely and humanely, and ensuring legal pathways are available for those who truly need them,” Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.
Republicans have rallied around the message that the Biden administration is to blame for the record number of border crossers — although more than a million were similarly allowed into the country on a temporary basis over a two-year stretch of the Trump administration, according to data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. They see the migrants who surrender to Border Patrol agents as a burden on society, costing the government millions of dollars to apprehend and process and wasting precious law enforcement resources.
But it is not just conservatives who are upset about the situation. There has long been consensus across parties that Congress needs to update the nation’s immigration laws to face the current challenge.
Mr. Biden’s detractors say that his welcoming message to immigrants during his campaign amounted to an invitation to cross illegally; even his own Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, suggested as much when he was interviewed recently as part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Florida. The Biden administration has repeatedly warned migrants not to make the dangerous and expensive journey to the border.
With no federal assistance once they are released, it falls to local communities and states to help the new immigrants get to where they are going and keep them from living on the streets. And lately, that challenge has grown.
To try to get the Biden administration’s attention, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, both Republicans, have sent thousands of newly arrived migrants on buses to Washington in recent months. Mr. Abbott has also sent buses to New York City, where officials say the shelter system now temporarily houses 5,700 asylum seekers. Both cities were not prepared to assist so many people, and officials and volunteers have been scrambling to help shelter them and get them to their desired destinations. Mr. Abbott recently started busing migrants to Chicago, too.
Many businesses have supported the idea, promoted by Democrats, of putting millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country on the path to legal residency and participation in the work force.
Many experts have argued that adding more immigrants to the work force would help the economy — especially in periods like this one, when the United States is suffering from high inflation and a worker shortage.
“Since we can’t go back in time and convince Americans to have more babies, we’ll need immigrants to fill out the labor force,” said Amon Emeka, a sociology professor at Skidmore University. “It will be critical that immigrants be integrated in the U.S. labor market to make up labor shortfalls in the years to come.”
Currently, immigrants who are admitted to await removal proceedings can apply for permission to work 150 days after filing an application for asylum, a delay that many businesses — particularly during a labor shortage — find frustrating. Most migrants who do not already have a sponsor in the country have to rely on whatever public assistance is available.
Though Maine has seen only a small portion of the asylum seekers who have crossed the border, what its nonprofits and state and local government agencies are doing to help them is likely unmatched anywhere in the country. More than 700 families seeking asylum have come to the Portland area since January 2021, most of whom fled the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola. Southern Maine has welcomed them with months of free housing and other assistance, filling a void left by a federal system that lets them stay in the country temporarily, but provides neither financial help nor swift permission to work.
Most of the families at the hotel in South Portland will be able to stay for a year, receiving assistance for housing, food, medical care and their immigration cases from case managers and volunteers. Portland has used state funds and federal emergency shelter dollars to help cover costs; from January 2021 through this June, the city spent $40 million on asylum seekers.
Officials describe it as both a humanitarian gesture and a down payment on the future of the state, which has the oldest and one of the whitest populations in the country and employers who are often desperate to fill jobs.
In 2019, the last time there was a spike in irregular migration, more than 300 families — also largely from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo — came to Southern Maine. Many are working legally while they wait for their cases to proceed; their presence has helped draw newcomers and made the region better prepared to handle influxes of migrants.
Last year, about 400 asylum-seeking students joined South Portland’s schools and were bused from the hotels; dozens more are expected to register over the next month.
Breakfast and lunch are provided by the hotel in South Portland, using the same state funds it receives to house migrants. For dinner, African dishes are prepared by volunteers. Several days a week, a doctor is there and English classes are provided. Legal clinics are also offered at the hotel, and transportation is arranged to and from immigration court in Boston.
In May, the state pledged to build about 200 housing units for asylum seekers in the Portland area and provide rental assistance for two years, or until they receive authorization to work from the federal government, said Greg Payne, the governor’s senior adviser on housing policy. Asylum seekers are expected to start moving in this fall.
“From the state perspective, this arrangement offers stable housing for asylum seekers and their families while they await the opportunity to join Maine’s work force, and also reduces the use of local community assistance funds,” Mr. Payne said.
In July, asylum seekers started moving into a Comfort Inn in Saco, funded through the state to house up to 300 migrants for a year, with support from Catholic Charities. About 40 students will start school in the coming weeks, a fact that drew concern at a recent school board meeting given the additional costs to the district. It is an issue that Republicans raise consistently: Why should the costs fall to local communities and states?
“The ideal policy is one that effectively helps people and protects taxpayers from unnecessary costs,” Jason Savage, executive director of the state’s Republican Party, said, adding that it was clear that Maine’s current policy needed a “redesign.”
Elsewhere in the country, aid groups have provided help to new immigrants, but on a smaller scale. In Fort Worth, Texas, an organization has found housing for about 50 people for as long as 27 months. In New Orleans, a group of nonprofit organizations has helped place about 125 immigrants with sponsors and legal assistance in the area when they are released from government custody.
In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat running for re-election this year, has allowed the state’s General Assistance program to be used to assist asylum seekers, which many say is a key reason the state has been able to help so many people for an extended period of time. But Ms. Mills’s Republican opponent — Paul LePage, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric drew national attention when he served as governor from 2011 to 2019 — has said he would block asylum seekers from getting state funds for shelter and food.
Ben Conniff, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Luke’s Lobster, said his business relies heavily on immigrants. About one-third of the employees at the company’s processing plant in Saco are asylum seekers, and he is desperate to hire more.
“I can’t imagine what goes through peoples’ heads in Congress that allows them to let this situation continue,” Mr. Conniff said, adding that it should be easier for new immigrants “to contribute to our economy and to be able to make their own living and not rely on services that are paid for by taxes.”
Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Krysten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, introduced a bill in February that would shorten the statutory requirement for how long an asylum seeker has to wait before applying for work authorization. There has been no action on the bill since it was introduced.
Currently, it takes between five and seven years for asylum cases to be decided. If an application is denied, there are opportunities to appeal, adding more years to an immigrant’s time in the country.
Maria Zombo, an Angolan asylum seeker and mother of six who lives outside of Portland, recently opened an African grocery store in the revitalized downtown of Biddeford. She came to the country on a tourist visa eight years ago, and has yet to receive an initial response to her application for asylum. She has started a business, purchased a home and had a child.
Her experience is not atypical, said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a nonprofit.
“People are having their entire life here happen before they get an answer,” Ms. Cruz said.
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