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.
Where the money is coming from
The city of Portland has reportedly received more than $900,000 in private donations, an incredible outpouring of support.
The Portland City Council’s Finance Committee agreed late last month that housing costs should be prioritized when appropriating those funds, such as first month’s rent, security deposits and utility activations. Remaining funds will be used to reimburse the city and nonprofit groups that have provided services to the asylum seekers. The committee’s recommendations will go before the City Council this month.
But more money at the federal level could be on the way. The city is hustling to apply for a supplemental appropriations for humanitarian assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was made available last week as part of a complicated $4.6 billion emergency immigration bill passed last month. The application is due Monday, and $5 million is earmarked to assist communities outside of Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico that have received an influx of asylum seekers since Jan. 1, 2019.
If awarded, the money would reimburse public and nonprofit social service organizations in Maine that have assisted with the care of asylum seekers.
In July, Gov. Janet Mills announced that her administration would expand access to state and municipal aid to asylum seekers “taking reasonable good faith steps” to complete the immigration process. The decision would reverse the policy set by former governor Paul LePage, and is designed in part to address a workforce shortage facing Maine, the oldest and whitest state in the nation.
“Help does not come in the form of cash, but in vouchers used to purchase basic items like food, medications, housing, and other essential services from select vendors,” Mills said in an opinion piece published by the Portland Press Herald.
Getting the asylum seekers into the state’s workforce is not an immediate fix. Under federal law, an asylum seeker can’t get permission to work in the United States until 180 days after an asylum application has been filed.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, is trying to shorten the six-month waiting period.
Young people are set to join the community
As of the first week of July, the Portland school system had registered 65 young people for potential K-12 enrollment if they were still in the area, according to Grace Valenzuela of Portland Schools. Many among that group have since been relocated to housing in towns surrounding Portland and would be eligible for enrollment in those school systems. It is required by law that U.S. public schools have a bilingual learning curriculum, such as an English language learner program.
Portland Public Schools currently have 2,058 students enrolled in English language learner programs. Westbrook has 514, Brunswick has 54 and surrounding communities expected to provide housing have two or three dozen students enrolled in English language learner programs.
While some young people who have entered the U.S. this decade have been unaccompanied minors, the group at the Expo consists of families, discrete groups of people who wish to be relocated together. Some say they would prefer to stay in Portland where they say they feel welcome, but would be happy to be anywhere in Maine, where they are eager to work and begin a new life.
“It’s Kabila’s Congo now, violence and killing,” Sephora said, referring to Joseph Kabila, the former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“People should know why we are here. I think that’s the question that should be asked,” Zola said. “Where I come from, there is no democracy, there is no justice. I wasn’t dreaming to come here.”
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