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Lewiston Mayor: Too Many Asylum Seekers

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public/file
Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald is at the microphone in this file photo from a press event in Lewiston in 2015.

Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald met with Gov. Paul LePage Friday morning to alert him to what he says is a growing problem: too many asylum seekers. Figures show that over the past three years the number has more than doubled in Lewiston. The city gets help from the state, but the mayor says it’s not enough.

Figures released by the city show that in 2014 there were 78 asylum seekers in Lewiston. The year after that, 113, and last year nearly 200 people identified as asylum seekers. Asylum is a legal status that must be determined by a court. And that’s a process that can take years.

“We’re being overrun by these people,” says Mayor MacDonald. “It’s just unbelievable. And the money we’re having to spend is just phenomenal.”

MacDonald and other city officials could not immediately provide data about how asylum seekers have affected General Assistance, money spent for housing and food assistance to help those in need. The state provides a 70% reimbursement to cities and towns. And asylum seekers can only receive GA for up to two years. But MacDonald is still troubled by what he’s seeing. He says of the more than $400,000 the city spent helping immigrants resettle in Lewiston in the first part of last year, most was for asylum seekers.

Sue Roche is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Maine. She says asylum seekers are fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Angola and the Congo. They come to places like Portland and Lewiston, Roche says, because they’re looking for safety and other people from their communities have moved to Maine before them.

“We’re seeing people coming from war-torn areas or areas where there are a lot of human rights abuses,” says Roche. “They arrive here and they’re homeless and they have this complicated legal process to go through. And, you know, the short-term cost of helping them get on their feet during this time period weighed against the long-term benefit of all the diversity and culture and economic growth that they’re going to bring to our communities, I think is really important to take a look at that.”

MacDonald says next week 60 asylum seekers have scheduled appointments with Lewiston’s welfare office, an office that MacDonald says has had to hire two additional workers to keep up with demand.

“They may be victims over there but what’s happening here is they’re making the taxpayers of Lewiston, which is one of the poorest cities in the state, we are the victims,” MacDonald says. “They’re making us victims because we have to support them.”

In his proposed budget, Gov. Paul LePage wants to eliminate General Assistance, not just for asylum seekers but for everyone. Advocates for the poor say that would eliminate an important safety net.

Mohamed Ibrahim, an organizer with the Maine Peoples’ Alliance, says, “I believe people will end up in the streets and we will have more homeless, more vulnerable. These are families, mothers and children and they really need help.”

Ibrahim points out that federal law prohibits asylum seekers from working for at least six months. That’s not their fault, he says, and they shouldn’t be blamed. Instead, he says elected officials should try to work on a solution.