While young ones entertained themselves running up and down the aisles between cots on the gymnasium floor, the adults among the remaining asylum seekers at the Portland Expo spent another scorching summer day waiting for their next chapters to take shape.
Less than two weeks remain until the Aug. 15 deadline to evacuate the city-owned Expo building before the Maine Red Claws basketball team prepares for its season, and 264 asylum seekers still need to be relocated to housing in Portland and other parts of Maine.
Here’s a look at where those asylum seekers currently stand when it comes to their immigration status, housing, finances and education.
Housing options still uncertain
With the help of numerous social service organizations in Greater Portland, city staffers have been working to find housing for the hundreds of newcomers, as volunteer groups from Catholic Charities, the Immigrant Lawyer Advocacy Project, Hope Acts and others help them navigate language barriers and chart vital steps along the process of obtaining asylum and the potential matriculation of their young ones into Maine public schools.
According to the city, 106 people — 38 families — have been relocated to housing in Bath, Brunswick, Buxton, Portland, Westbrook and Yarmouth.
“We thank God for what the [Portland] government did. It’s not easy to care about us, to provide food for us, to provide a place to sleep,” Genoby Zola said Tuesday. Zola is a 40-year-old man originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has been staying in the Expo with his son, and Zola speaks in English.
“We’re just waiting. There are a lot of barriers,” Sephora, a 35-year-old woman who did not provide a last name, said through an interpreter. “I want to stay here in Portland,” she said. “It’s been very difficult but since God gave me strength, I’m here and want to stay.”
Sephora, who is Congolese, is here with her 2-year-old son, Prince. She said she has been on the run from her home since she was 21 years old, fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo to neighboring Angola.
Keeping immigration officials informed
Adding to the questions around housing is the necessity of keeping authorities notified. Asylum seekers need to submit a change of address form to an immigration court to ensure they receive their hearing notice at their new address. If they miss a hearing, the likelihood of being granted asylum decreases significantly.
The migrants in the Expo are here legally and seeking defensive asylum, one of two processes of pursuing asylum status en route to becoming a naturalized citizen. In this case, Department of Homeland Security agents, from U.S. Border Patrol or Immigration Customs and Enforcement, have given asylum seekers at the initial point of apprehension a notice to appear in an immigration court. While it seems intuitive that many of those in Portland would be expected to appear in Boston Immigration Court, this is not always the case, as first encounters with border patrol agents have occurred outside of Maine. Often, according to Portland’s Immigration Legal Advocacy Project, a person’s notice to appear will have scheduled a hearing even further away from Boston.
But before an individual can officially seek asylum, their case must be officially entered into the immigration court system, a process which is initiated by border patrol agents and could take several weeks to complete. Asylum seekers can call a 1-800 number to check if their particular case has been entered into the system, after which point it is possible to make a motion to change the venue of their immigration court hearing. Many of the people in the Expo will be seeking to do this in order to change their hearing venue to Boston Immigration Court.
Because of the unique circumstances of this group of migrants being released from Homeland Security custody and bused to Portland, volunteer lawyers are trying to keep the migrants attentive to an atypical schedule and timeline. With two weeks to go before addresses change, many of them are still in limbo one way or another.
“The vast majority of families at the Expo are currently at the change of address stage and not in the system at all yet, so do not have a date in Boston court and cannot file their asylum applications yet,” said Julia Brown, outreach attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.