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Maine city, overwhelmed by asylum-seekers, debates immigrant assistance programs

'The number of people coming is out of sync with resources.'

John Moore/Getty Images

Portland, Maine, offers generous assistance programs to help asylum-seeking immigrants transition into American life. Word has spread, however, and now the city is facing tough decisions about how to move forward as it gets overwhelmed with asylum-seekers, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Immigrants seeking asylum, primarily from African countries, take up nearly all of Portland's family shelter space. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the number of asylum requests has never been higher.

"We have more cases than we've ever had," said Jennifer Bailey, asylum program director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Maine. "The number of people coming is out of sync with resources."

What's the story?

Asylum-seekers who make it to Portland can get financial assistance for lodging and other necessities funded by the state and the city, and also pro bono legal representation to help them formally apply for asylum.

As more people have found out how immigrant-friendly Portland is, however, the city is starting to run out of resources to accommodate them. Shelter space is running low, and funding is stretched thin.

"The word is out there that our community is open to that population and has some assistance programs," David MacLean of the Portland Social Services Division told WSJ. "Our local resources are not able to keep up."

The debate

Some in Portland are split between continuing to increase the amounts of available government assistance, or possibly scaling back to prevent the overpopulation problem from becoming worse. According to WSJ, as many as 70 percent of those receiving state general assistance funds are noncitizens, and mostly asylum seeking noncitizens.

Part of the issue is that the process of applying for asylum can be lengthy. Just applying can take months and asylum-seekers are not able to get jobs for six months after they file. Then, they can only get federal benefits once they've actually been granted asylum.

MacLean said that the immigrants typically get jobs and are self-sufficient once they make it through that process, but it takes a lot of assistance to get them to that point.

The problem points to a larger debate about asylum policies. The asylum issue receiving the most attention currently is the logjam of asylum-seekers coming through Mexico from Central America.

One last thing…
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