Facing threat of deportation, many asylum seekers in Maine struggle to find legal representation
After Sunday services concluded at Heaven First Church in Portland on a recent evening, a man named Jeremias was sitting on a couch outside the main hall as dozens of fellow parishioners – most from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - mingled before heading home.
Speaking softly amid the multilingual chatter in French, Portuguese, and Lingala, Jeremias, who is from Angola, said he and his young daughter arrived at the southern U.S. border last year after travelling overland from Brazil. His wife began the journey with them, but Jeremias said she died while traversing a roadless stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama on foot.
Speaking in Portuguese, Jeremias said the group they were traveling with kept moving, and he wasn't able to bury her.
Now, to secure permanent status in the U.S. for himself and his daughter, Jeremias will have to defend his asylum claim in immigration court. He said he’s called three or four attorneys to get help, but has been told that their schedules are full.
Others in this congregation are facing similar challenges. Some have lived here for years but can’t afford a private attorney, and one more recent arrival said he doesn’t even know how to begin the process of seeking asylum.
They’re among an estimated eight to ten thousand asylum seekers in Maine with ongoing immigration cases, said Anna Welch, director of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law.
"There just simply aren't enough attorneys to fill the need or the demand here in Maine," Welch said.
Unlike criminal court, Welch said the immigration court system does not provide free representation to those who can't afford it. If they can't get help from a legal aid organization, they must either pay a private attorney to take their case, which can cost thousands of dollars, or represent themselves, often with dire consequences.
Welch said the numbers vary year by year, but, according to recent data, asylum seekers without representation are 65% more likely to face deportation.
"And where these are essentially death penalty cases, right, many asylum seekers face persecution, torture, or death, should they be returned to their home countries, the stakes couldn't be higher," she said.
It's not a new trend. Nationwide, going back to 2000, 48% of asylum seekers with representation were granted asylum or another form of relief, compared to only about 18% of those without representation, according to data from the TRAC Immigration Project at Syracuse University.
Several immigration advocacy groups in Maine are launching new programs designed to stretch limited legal resources.
One of those programs is the Asylum Application Resource Center at the Portland Public Library, run by the local nonprofit Hopes Acts two days a week.
The Resource Center does not offer legal advice. It does provide interpreters, covers the cost of passport photos and postage, and, with the help of the library, offers access to free printing and laptops.
One of the volunteers at the Resource Center is a man named Mathieu, who is from Burundi and filed his own asylum application with help from Hope Acts last year.
He said even the cost of postage can be a barrier, because under the law, asylum seekers aren't allowed to work until months after they file their cases.
"We are totally broke," he said in French. "We have nothing."
Hopes Acts director Martha Stein said this program, which began last year, helps 20 to 30 people each week, and often has to turn away just as many, because spots fill up so quickly.
"We kind of call this a little bit of a Bandaid," she said. "Because putting an application in is just one step in a very, very long process."
But Jennifer Bailey, a senior project attorney with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, or ILAP, said it’s an important step, because that application lays the legal foundation for an asylum claim based on U.S. and international law.
"And it requires very specific proof that you have been harmed in the past or your fear future harm - that's a well-founded fear - based on certain protected grounds," she said. Those protected grounds include race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and social group.
ILAP is Maine’s only statewide nonprofit specializing in immigration legal services, and in 2022 it had a greater than 98% approval rate for full representation cases that received a final decision, according to its internal numbers.
Bailey said the organization recently launched its own program to expand capacity, by helping certain asylum seekers submit their applications under the guidance of an immigration attorney without taking them on as full clients.
But Bailey said the fundamental challenge facing asylum seekers in Maine is not just a shortage of attorneys. It’s that the complicated immigration court system itself is stacked against unrepresented people.
"And so that's where it all falls apart," she said. "Because people can't navigate a complex legal system where they have to write briefs, make arguments, call witnesses, things like that, on their own, in a language that's not their own, in a whole system and society and political organization that's unfamiliar to them."
But that’s exactly what people like Jeremias, the father from Angola who traversed South and Central America to reach the U.S., are trying to do.
His case is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in early April, and Jeremias said he’s still holding out hope that he will find a lawyer who can help him.