September 22, 2019
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Portland due for difficult conversation about support for asylum seekers

Francis Flisiuk | BDN
Francis Flisiuk | BDN
A groups rally for immigrants rights in Portland, May 21, 2015.

The city of Portland — and its long-standing, well-intended support for asylum seekers and other immigrants — found its way into the national spotlight last week.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, who has stayed fairly active on radio and television for someone who previously claimed to be done with politics, joined Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday night for a segment framed as “what liberalism does to our country.”

The interview was based around a Jan. 27 report from the Wall Street Journal that a growing number of asylum seekers — people who come to the United States saying they are fleeing persecution or violence — has strained services in Maine’s largest city. The Portland Press Herald previously covered the issue in detail in a Dec. 23 story.

This is not an indictment of Portland’s support for asylum seekers, as Ingraham sought to portray it last week. It is, however, reason for the city of Portland to have a difficult conversation about how it provides important services to people who need them.

After years of trying to restrict asylum seekers’ access to government support programs, LePage’s comments to Ingraham about prioritizing services for “people who have lived their lives in Maine” during the interview were nothing new and nothing surprising. And the response from Portland politicians were equally predictable.

“I will never turn my back on my immigrant neighbors no matter what Fox News says,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said in an email he sent out after the interview with the subject line, “Attacked by Fox News.” Strimling’s email asked for donations, presumably for his expected but yet-announced re-election bid.

City Councilor and mayoral candidate Spencer Thibodeau similarly responded to Fox interview with his own email (including a fundraising link) emphasizing the economic impact immigrants have in Portland.

“Maine is one of the oldest, least diverse states in the country and one of the only states where there are more deaths than births. It’s evident that our population can’t grow without New Mainers, and if our population doesn’t grow, we won’t be able to replace workers who die or retire,” Thibodeau said, pointing to a report from the city, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and other partners.

That report, “ New Americans in Portland, ME,” outlines how immigrants contributed more than $1.2 billion to the Portland area’s GDP in 2016 while contributing $133 million in federal taxes and $62 million in state and local taxes. The document doesn’t provide specific economic data on the asylum seeker population, but serves as a critical baseline in understanding the economic activity that immigrants can help create in the Portland region.

It’s painfully obvious that Ingraham and LePage certainly weren’t telling the whole story during their interview, willfully looking past the positive economic impact that asylum seekers and other immigrants can have.

But it’s also true that Portland needs to have a conversation about how it matches a commendable effort to welcome people fleeing harm and persecution with a growing need and finite amount of resources.

While Portland’s admirable decision to support asylum seekers is a local one, it is inescapably linked to state and federal policy. Maine’s top court ruled against the LePage administration last year, finding that asylum seekers who are allowed to work in the country but are unemployed can receive food stamps while searching for a job. The LePage administration eventually submitted rules on his last day in office to provide certain asylum seekers with benefits, and Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is now seeking comment on those rules. Federal policies, including the Trump administration’s attempts to limit and discourage the asylum process, and federal limitations on asylees working when they first arrive, further cloud the picture.

The notion that increased numbers of asylum seekers are complicating Portland services is not some conjured right-wing narrative from away; it came first from city officials administering those services, who have called the situation a “crisis.”

The conversation about how Portland moves forward should also come from within the city — not from Fox News or a former governor who went out of his way to fight with Portland while in office.


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