Malu Klo, an asylum seeker from the Congo, attends a picnic for refugees, Thursday, July 4, 2019, at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Immigration advocates here sprang into high gear last week after reports from the southern border found more than a thousand migrant families with young children had been released into the U.S. by border agents.

The Biden administration’s undoing of restrictive Trump-era immigration policies, coupled with a recent change in Mexico’s policy that makes it harder for the U.S. to expel migrants, has forged new pathways for arrivals to the United States. Maine isn’t expected to be a popular destination for migrants crossing the southern border this winter, but a group dedicated to facilitating newcomers’ arrival to the state saw the news as a wake-up call.

“We need to be planning for what’s going to happen when more people come,” said Sally Sutton, a program coordinator with the New Mainers Resource Center wing of Portland Adult Education who chairs the Asylum Seekers Working Group. “And there are issues now that we didn’t have in the ‘Summer of the Expo.’”

Portland has seen a “quiet, steady stream” of immigrants who arrived since in the summer of 2019, when the city housed more than 400 asylum seekers who fled persecution from their homes in war-torn African countries. Eighty-five asylum-seeking families arrived in Portland from March through December of last year, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. Of the 296 total people, 162 were children under 18.

The migrant families who were recently released into the U.S., many of whom had been staying in detention camps, hail mostly from countries in Central America. They typically join families and communities who have already recently settled in the states, Sutton said, making them likelier to head elsewhere than Maine.

But more arrivals will reach the state at some point, and Maine should be prepared. The Asylum Seekers Working Group — composed of immigration lawyers, advocates, government officials and people who have been through the immigration process and now sit on organizations that help others navigate it — has met informally for years to strategize and share knowledge about immigration policy and trends, which can often change suddenly. Now, they have ramped up their meeting schedule to plan how to handle asylum seekers and other migrants arriving in the Biden era.

“As we can anticipate more people coming, we need to be ready for that,” Sutton said.

In a landscape of social services strained by the coronavirus, the group hopes to synthesize the state’s pandemic response with lessons learned absorbing newcomers the last few years.

Mufalo Chitam, director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and part of the Asylum Seekers Working Group, said that a welcoming effort now should have more culturally and linguistically experienced social workers, and that services would be delivered differently today because of COVID-19. 

“We hope the city learned from 2019 that when they convene mainstream and ethnic-based community organizations’ service providers to center and prioritize the voices and perspectives of ethnic community leaders on decision making,” Chitam said. “Not all help is good help.”

Officials could do more to recognize that the state is “not quite serving [immigrants] as they need to be served,” Sutton said. That task includes securing adequate safety measures and labor protections during the pandemic and successfully integrating students into schools, which includes transportation, reliable WiFi devices and trauma support to address young people’s emotional needs.

Lawyers and others who work with Maine’s immigrant population weathered turbulent changes to immigration policy during the Trump administration, which lawyers have said was often designed to keep people from legally coming into the U.S. That has made the work of helping new arrivals acclimate to Maine more challenging. Lawyers who assist immigrants would find that their clients’ asylum hearings would be arbitrarily scheduled in immigration courts around the country. Applying to reschedule those hearings to Boston Immigration Court, the nearest facility, often added months to a process already slowed by the pandemic.

Scant housing options in Maine’s largest city have prompted the working group to explore other regions in the state for migrants to land. The Portland Expo building, where the city sheltered newcomers in 2019 until they found long-term housing, would likely not be an option today. Staff at the family shelter, also at capacity, has been preoccupied with keeping the virus out, while the city has sheltered hundreds of others in area hotels during the winter, a group that includes migrant families, people experiencing homelessness and residents of long-term care facilities displaced by COVID-19 outbreaks.

Despite the challenges in preparing for new arrivals, the group is anchored by a shared belief in the cultural and economic benefits that immigration brings to the state. Maine has the highest median age and highest percentage of white residents in the U.S.

“The fact that people are deciding to come to Maine is a blessing for our state,” Sutton said. “We wanted more people to come, and now [the feeling is], ‘Alright, how are we going to handle it?’”