Portland overwhelmed by growing number of asylum seekers

According to city staff, Portland is hosting 727 asylum seekers at its shelters and 10 area hotels.

PORTLAND, Maine — As the number of asylum seekers in Portland increases, officials say the city is becoming increasingly overwhelmed.

“We see the numbers increasing week by week,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Every day, she and her team work with the record number of asylum seekers arriving in Maine to help them.

“Our staff is so stretched. We can only clone ourselves so many times,” Chitam said.

The main reason MIRC and other community organizations say they feel burnt out is the growing number of people in need of services.

According to Portland Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow, the city is currently home to 727 asylum seekers. That’s more than 200 more asylum seekers than in 2019, when Portland Expo was used as an emergency shelter.

“Our shelters are full, and they have been for some time. So because they are full, we had to use hotels,” Dow said.

With the city’s emergency shelters at capacity, Portland housed asylum seekers and other homeless people in ten different hotels across five different municipalities. In total, the city provides accommodation for 1,198 people.

“This calls on everyone to come together so they can provide support to newcomers,” said Charles Mugabe, director of case management for Catholic Charities Maine.

CMM is another organization working closely with asylum seekers to provide services.

In addition to working with asylum seekers and other new Mainers, CMM is also a licensed resettlement agency working to support refugees arriving in Maine. According to Mugabe, CMM helped resettle 104 Afghan refugees.

There is a difference in the way refugees and asylum seekers are taken care of. According to U.S. Citizen and Immigrant Services, refugee status is a form of protection that may be granted to people who meet the refugee definition and who are of special humanitarian interest to the United States.

Refugees are usually people outside their country who are unable or unwilling to return home because they fear serious harm. Many refugees are supported upon arrival in the county through resettlement agencies like CMM.

Asylum status is a form of protection available to people who meet the refugee definition but are already in the United States seeking protection because they have been persecuted or fear persecution because of their race. , their religion, their nationality, their membership of a particular social group. political group or opinion. Chitam and Dow said there was no concentrated effort to support asylum seekers like there is for refugees.

Asylum seekers also cannot apply for permission to work in the United States at the same time they apply for asylum. In many cases, asylum seekers cannot apply for a work permit until one year after an asylum application has been completed.

With fewer coordinated services provided to asylum seekers, the city of Portland and social service organizations have worked around the clock to care for them.

“Frankly, it’s going to take a broader approach than a municipality can tackle,” Dow said.

Dow added that Portland staff are in communication with the state government, looking to find ways to better support new Mainers.

“We are trying to ask the state to re-engage in this crisis,” Chitam said.

Another concern of Portland City Hall is funding hotels for the homeless and new Mainers. Currently, the state is reimbursing Portland for 70% of hotel costs used to support those who are not housed through general assistance, according to Dow.

FEMA reimburses the remaining 30% of the costs. Dow said FEMA funding could expire in April.

“It’s something that Portland has endorsed, and hopefully we can have conversations about it really being a more regional and more statewide approach,” Dow said.

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