As asylum seeker arrivals spike in Maine, aid groups say lack of reliable data hinders response
On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of clients file into the office at Hope Acts in Portland. The organization helps asylum seekers navigate government bureaucracy, everything from address changes to immigration appointments.
One client, a 21-year-old man from Angola named Samuel, said he arrived in Maine about a week ago.
"I know people here," he said, in Portuguese, "which makes it easier when I need to figure out how things work here."
It’s the type of story Martha Stein, who runs Hope Acts, has been seeing a lot more of over the last several years.
"Demand for services has probably more than quadrupled. So much has changed, so many more people have arrived," she said.
But because there is no centralized government system for tracking asylum seekers, one of the few clues that provide a sense of how many are coming to Maine is the number of Notices to Appear, or NTAs. That's a document filed in immigration court at the beginning of a deportation case.
In the fiscal year that ended last month, more than 3,600 NTAs had been filed for people with Maine addresses, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
That’s a nearly tenfold increase from 2018, when 385 NTAs were filed for people with Maine addresses.
And Beth Stickney, an immigration attorney and policy consultant, estimated that around 80% of the cases filed in FY23 — roughly 3,000 people — are newly arrived asylum seekers.
"The number of cases, especially recently, I think, can be attributed in large part to people coming over the southern border, and coming to Maine," she said.
But the lack of more precise data, advocates said, has created chaos and confusion.
Mufalo Chitam, with the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition, said when dozens of asylum seekers arrived unannounced in Sanford this spring, municipal staff quickly became overwhelmed, with no easy way to sort out who already had services, and who did not.
And Chitam said those who don't have a connection in Maine can easily fall through the cracks.
"Because nobody even knows that you are here," she said. "So there isn't a place for you to say, ‘I'm here, I don’t know anyone,’ so you're gonna get less services based on who you know."
Some asylum seekers have slept on the streets. And, this week, one Congolese asylum seeker reported that he has been staying in a Portland church since arriving here in June, not sure who he can ask for help finding stable housing.
Advocates are hoping that the fledgling Maine Office for New Americans, which is still in the planning phase, will help aggregate data on asylum seekers in the state, as they arrive, settle in and, in some cases, move on.
Samuel, the young man from Angola, said his aunt found him a place to stay with a group of other Angolan immigrants.
But he said he’s not ready to settle down just yet.
"In the future, I want to explore other states," he said. "I don’t wanna just stop here."