PORTLAND, Maine — Organizations working every day with immigrants and asylum seekers arriving in Maine are calling for stronger communication between federal, state, and local governments.
"What we need is to not see it as a problem, to see it as we need a solution," Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project Executive Director Sue Roche said. "Just people on the ground and municipalities are not going to be able to find that solution. We need to have a coordinated approach, with the federal government involved to help pave the way for people to be able to get what they need so that they can start to build their new lives here in Maine."
According to the City of Portland, 756 asylum seekers have arrived in the city since the start of 2023.
Last week, 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 in the letter that 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.
Collins said she spoke with Maine Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, in Washington last week about the issue.
Talbot Ross wrote in a statement:
"Senator Collins and I discussed a range of issues during our visit. Maine has a long history of being a welcoming community. It should be no different for those seeking asylum. We must ensure all people are treated with dignity, respect and provided safe harbor. I impressed upon Sen. Collins the importance of shortening the wait time for asylum seekers to be granted work visas. Six months is simply too long for people ready and eager to provide for themselves and their families. Additionally, I also raised an ongoing concern brought to us by the City of Portland regarding the verification of addresses. Ultimately, Maine needs additional support, resources and immediate action from the federal government to ensure our new Maine residents have an opportunity to succeed."
"While we did not ask the Senator to send this letter, we are supportive of her efforts as we want to make sure we can provide compassionate care, and given our numbers and existing space, that's not currently possible," City of Portland Director of Communications Jessica Grondin wrote in a statement.
Nonprofits and community organizations that work with asylum seekers however are pushing back against the letter, and say no individual seeking asylum should be turned away.
"We are causing more barriers for the worst displaced people who come here in search of safety and dignity. And that's not who we are as a community, historically we've been a welcoming city, welcoming community," Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, said.
Jalali and Roche both said there needs to be stronger communication between federal officials and those providing services on the ground to best care for asylum seekers.
"They have walked, they have crossed oceans and forests to make it here, and as such, we really need to welcome them," Jalali said.
"They are coming because they need protection and safety, and here in the U.S. we have treaties and laws that provide protection," Roche said.
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.