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What's Behind Maine's Sudden Influx Of Asylum Seekers?

Julie Pike
Maine Public
Cots for an influx of aslyum seekers are set up at the Portland Expo June 12, 2019.

Portland officials are currently working to accommodate an influx of more than 200 asylum seekers to the area.  The sudden arrival of new immigrants prompts the question, "Why is this happening now?" According to some experts, no major recent event has prompted the spike in immigration. “I don't know if anything has changed in recent weeks,” says Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst for the American Immigration Council. “To me the most likely reason for more people coming is simply that more people arrived."

Many of the asylum seekers come from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Members of the Angolan community in Maine say some seeking asylum might have left that country during the elections of 2017, fearing political persecution and worked their way through South and Central America since that time." Congolese asylum seekers have said they hope to leave behind violence resulting from civil war in their country of origin.

Reichlin-Melnick says people seeking asylum are usually able to pursue protected status one of two ways: by either requesting asylum while crossing the border at a port of entry, or by requesting asylum directly from a border guard if stopped while crossing into the United States. But, as he pointed out to Maine Public’s Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz, the process is not always a simple one.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Generally speaking, right now people are being asked to wait two to three months in Mexico before even being allowed to ask for asylum at a port of entry, under a practice known as metering or queue management. For those who cross the border and ask for asylum from a border patrol officer to start the process, they are risking prosecution for illegal entry. So, in many ways, those seeking asylum at the border are faced with a really difficult decision: wait for an indefinite period of time, potentially up to three or four months in Mexico, and likely dangerous circumstances, or risk breaking the law and being charged with a crime by crossing the border and turning themselves into the Border Patrol. In the past those who asked for asylum at the border were placed into what's known as the “credible fear” process, where they had to prove to an asylum officer that they had a credible fear of persecution in their home country. And if they did they would be allowed to apply for asylum, formerly in immigration court. But now, because conditions at the border are so crowded, Customs and Border Protection has been releasing people directly from the border with court notices to show up in immigration court, where they can indirectly apply for asylum there without going through the credible fear process. So that started changing about 3-4 months ago.

GRATZ: So, in other words, for the last three or four months, it's possible there's been kind of a build-up of asylum seekers who are in the U.S. but have not been processed in any way by Customs and Border Protection.

Yeah, other than, of course, interviewing them at the border, taking their fingerprints, processing them - the normal way that any person who enters the country is processed, so we know who they are, we know where they intend to go and whether or not they intend to seek asylum.

When they are asked to then return for a hearing at some point down the road, where do they need to return to?

Generally speaking, you know, people who come to the border have a sense of where they're going. You know, I like to think of this as - a hundred years ago my ancestors came to the United States, and while none of them had ever stepped foot in the country before, they had the general sense of where they were going. And, similarly, those who are asylum seekers today, most of the time if they're going to the United States it’s because they have some connection, some family members and friends, some acquaintance, some distant relative in the United States that has already agreed to support them. In the case of Central Africans, many of them are going to places where there are already Central African communities because they might have a distant relative or a friend or somebody who's agreed to help them. When that happens in the border interview, if they're being released with a court notice, generally speaking, the government will try to place them in the nearest immigration court - ask them to show up at the nearest immigration court at their final destination. In this situation, individuals who are arriving at the border with an ultimate destination in Maine are likely going to be asked to go to the Boston immigration court.