This year, the U.S. immigration court backlog soared to 474,322 cases. In Maine, this backlog means our comparatively small number of asylum seekers — about 1,000 — may wait up to five years for their asylum hearings.
Asylum seekers are a protected class of individuals, under international and American law, formally requesting protection because of threat of persecution in their country of origin. Yet, in too many instances, requesting asylum is just the beginning of a difficult journey.
The Maine Legislature supported asylum seekers with the passage of LD 369 last year, which clarified that asylum seekers are eligible for General Assistance. But since then, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has chosen to interpret the General Assistance rules as restrictively as possible, preventing access to GA for asylum seekers in the process of completing their application. With their futures hanging in the balance, asylum seekers are being squeezed from all sides.
Though most asylum seekers would like to work, they cannot do so until they receive authorization at least five months after submitting an asylum application. And the truth is that the financial assistance afforded to asylum seekers is extremely limited. An individual in Bangor using GA may receive a maximum of $628 per month, barely enough to survive. That’s why many asylum seekers find other ways to support themselves, often with the help of their ethnic communities and the host society.
Asylum seekers face significant challenges upon reaching the United States: completing the complex asylum application process, learning a new language, navigating a new culture and potentially facing discrimination from the receiving community.
Asylum seekers live in constant uncertainty. They don’t know if their asylum cases will be approved, if they will be able to remain in the United States or if they will have to return to their home country. They cannot leave the United States while their application is pending, or their cases will be rejected. These challenges can slow down the process of asylum seekers adjusting to their new life and becoming contributing members of society.
As a result, many recently arrived asylum seekers turn to their communities — those asylum seekers and asylees who have arrived before them — for a helping hand. This could mean a place to stay until they can find an apartment, a ride or child care or advice on how to navigate the “system.” And despite the numerous challenges they face, many asylees are driven to succeed and feel a strong desire to give back to their adopted communities.
Vital support system for newcomers also comes from members of the host community. The American Friends program in Greater Portland is one example, run by Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services. This program matches recently arrived refugees with members of the host community. Refugees and their American friends meet for a couple of hours each week so refugees can practice English, learn about public transportation, schools, taxes and other aspects of life in Maine.
The American friends learn about refugees’ cultures and experiences. Perhaps most importantly, these relationships foster understanding and tolerance.
Yet these forms of community support are not enough. Asylum seekers, who haven’t been granted refugee status, cannot access the majority of programs and services available to refugees. And because of our broken immigration system, they wait years to be granted refugee status — if at all. In the meantime, they rely on their communities for help. Now, DHHS risks removing the safety net of General Assistance through its dubious interpretation of LD 369.
The migration of many people to a community can be difficult, especially when the newcomers are asylum seekers who have little money and have experienced tremendous hardship. These moments call for empathy from the receiving community. And these moments call for people of different backgrounds to reach out to each other and try to understand one another’s cultures and experiences before making judgements about who is welcome to stay in Maine.
Grace Kiffney is a recent University of Maine graduate in international affairs. Robert W. Glover is an assistant professor of honors and political science at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.