WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — Senator Susan Collins sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday to request the agency not send more asylum seekers to Portland without a verified destination address.
Collins said DHS's practice of helping move asylum seekers to a destination city without confirming the city has the resources to accommodate is straining Portland in particular.
The new arrivals must rely on general assistance and social services because federal law prevents them from working for a minimum of six months from when they arrive in the country, but the process often takes much longer.
Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross met with Senator Collins in Washington, D.C. the first week of March. She told Collins Portland's social services have reached a breaking point, creating a crisis for asylum seekers, as well as Mainers experiencing homelessness.
"State and local officials have reported to me that many asylum seekers in Portland identified municipal government addresses—including social services offices or emergency shelters—as their ultimate destination when they first arrived at the southern border," Senator Collins wrote. "Those individuals were allowed entry into the country, and in many cases were provided with transportation to Maine, without any confirmation by DHS as to whether the locations identified can accommodate these individuals."
More than 650 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland alone since January 1, 2023. The city's municipally operated shelters are already at capacity each night, forcing nonprofits to open nighttime shelters to care for all the people who need help.
"As a result, the City of Portland—a city with a population of fewer than 70,000—is currently sheltering approximately 1,100 people per night and is under constant pressure to expand emergency shelters and other services, with the only alternative being to turn away vulnerable individuals, families, and children. Perhaps most troubling, the surge of asylum seekers in Maine now means that housing facilities are beyond capacity and Mainers in need of shelter have nowhere to go," Senator Collins continued. "I request that, going forward, DHS verify all destination addresses prior to allowing entry into the country, thereby ensuring that asylum seekers have a safe, reliable destination, and that municipalities are not stretched beyond capacity."
Last month, Senator Collins introduced the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2023, which would shorten the waiting period before asylum seekers are eligible to receive work authorizations. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree also reintroduced her version of the bill in 2023.
"Maine communities have done their part to assist asylum seekers in need, but these communities are strained far beyond their capacity," Senator Collins concluded. "Allowing additional asylum seekers to travel to Maine without confirming that these individuals will have a place to sleep is irresponsible and could lead to a tragedy. I urge you to take immediate action to prevent that from happening."
Senator Collins also asked Secretary Mayorkas to respond to a series of questions to better understand how DHS facilitates the transportation of asylum seekers.
Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, responded to Collins in a statement Friday. The organization "helps low income immigrants improve their legal status and works for more just and humane laws and policies affecting immigrants," according to its website.
Roche said the senator's request "would undermine the United States’ international treaty obligations and does not reflect the realities that migrants are facing."
“The situation in Maine right now is not simply a lack of resources and capacity, it’s the result of poor federal government planning in furtherance of a racist and xenophobic immigration system that disproportionately harms Black, Brown, and marginalized immigrants," Roche said. "The wealthiest nation in the world can and should follow its own laws on asylum and respond to resource challenges with resource solutions.”
"Nonprofit organizations and regular Mainers have been stepping up every day to respond to the failures of the federal government to assist those in need of humanitarian protection," she continued. "We call on Senator Collins, the rest of Congress, and the administration to step up with us and design and implement effective, pragmatic solutions that ensure humanitarian aid and protection for those at our border and already in our communities.
Click here to read Senator Collins’ letter.