August 19, 2018
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State champion poet can’t compete for national title because of immigration status, suit says

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:

The Deering High student who won the state Poetry Out Loud Contest and the Portland school district have sued the National Endowment for the Arts and its chair for not allowing him to compete in the national contest because he has not yet been granted asylum.

Allan Monga, 17, of Westbrook fled his native Zambia last year. He is a junior at Deering High School, a school with a large number of immigrants in its student body. Monga has received a work authorization card and a Social Security number but not a green card.

“When I learned that I am not going to be allowed to participate in the national competition because I am not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident I felt discriminated against,” Monga said in his affidavit filed with the lawsuit. “America is a county of immigrants. If someone works hard and earns something, no barriers should be placed in his or her way. I am the state champion and I should be given an equal opportunity.”

The Poetry Out Loud contest rules say only citizens and permanent legal immigrants can participate, according to the complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Portland.

Monga and the school district are seeking an injunction to force the NEA to let him participate in the national competition April 23 – 25 in Washington, D.C. The lawsuit claims that by not letting Monga compete, the NEA is violating the equal protection clause of the 5th and 14th Amendments and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination in education, among other things.

“I honestly don’t want to stir up any trouble,” Monga said Thursday afternoon at a news conference at his attorneys’ Portland office. “I just want to go to Washington, D.C., and compete like any other kid.”

Julie A. Richard, executive director of the MCA, said Thursday in an email that the commission does not comment on pending litigation. Assistant Attorney General John Osborn, who is defending the NEA, also declined to comment.

The Maine Arts Commission, which receives funding from the NEA and sponsors the Poetry Out Loud contest in Maine, was named as an interested party in the lawsuit but was not sued. At first, the MAC refused to allow Monga to participate in the state final after he won the regional competition, the lawsuit said.

The commission allowed Monga to participate after his teachers, Deering High School Principal Gregg Palmer, and Portland School District Superintendent Xavier Botana contacted the commission’s staff and urged them to let Monga to compete, Monga said in his affidavit.

“The state finals were on March 20, 2018,” Monga said. “Mr. Palmer organized a bus so my classmates and teachers could go to the competition too. Having them there made me feel like my school was behind me all the way and made me feel comfortable and special.

“I was happy to have their support because I was very nervous at the state finals,” he continued. “I sat in a row with the other competitors and when the person next to me was called my legs started shaking. When my name was called, I walked to the stage, took a deep breath, and went for it.”

It was during the state competition when Monga learned that he would not be allowed to go to the Washington, D.C., if he won, he said at the press conference. He and school officials were determined to fight for his right to compete.

“I figured it would not be easy when I was a state finalist,” he said of the anticipated legal battle.

After Monga won the state contest, Bruce Smith of Portland, an attorney for the district, began researching a legal basis for the rule about who could participate in the Poetry Out Loud contest.

“I was unable to find any legal basis for excluding a student from the competition because he is not a citizen or permanent resident,” he wrote in his affidavit.

The lawsuit also alleges that other state contest winners have been assigned a professional poet to work with in preparation for the competition. Monga has not, the complaint said.

In a letter from the NEA to the MCA, the agency claimed it has the discretion to make the rules for its programs, but cited no legal basis for excluding non-citizens who don’t have permanent legal residency status, Smith said.

A hearing on the matter has not yet been set, but is expected to be held next week before U.S. District Judge John Woodcock.

Melissa Hewey, one of Portland Monga’s attorneys, said she expected Woodcock would hold a hearing and issue a decision by the end of next week. Hewey also said that the law firm, Drummond Woodsum, is not billing the district for its services in Monga’s case.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, urged Jane Chu, NEA chairwoman, to allow Monga to participate in the national competition, in a letter released Thursday by Pingree’s office. Pingree is a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which has oversight of discretionary funding at the NEA. She is also an ex-officio member of the National Council on the Arts, which is the advisory committee to the NEA.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is all about supporting artistic expression from diverse voices and capturing different aspects of the American experience,” Pingree said Thursday afternoon in a press release.

“As a young person seeking asylum in our county — and an exceptional performer —I think it would be terrible to exclude Allan’s voice from this competition,” she said. “I don’t see a statutory basis to keep him or other outstanding students like him from competing and I hope the NEA reconsiders its decision.”

Members of the Portland delegation to the Maine Legislature issued a letter of support for Monga addressed to “the Portland Community” Thursday afternoon.

“We believe Allan has earned the right to compete and to represent Maine by performing alongside students from across the United States,” it said. “To deny him this opportunity would be unjust, unwarranted and a poor representation of our shared values.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Benjamin Chipman and Mark Dion and Reps. Denise Harlow, Mike Sylvester, Erik Jorgensen and Rachel Talbot Ross.

This is the second federal lawsuit filed this month involving the Portland School District. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen ruled against the father of a baseball player with an 85 mile-per-hour fastball, who had sought to force Deering High School to allow his son to play varsity baseball.

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