Asylum Seekers at Heart of Maine's General Assistance Dispute: Who Are They?

Jul 16, 2014

Ana Pemba, right, at the Lewiston City Council meeting Tuesday night.
Credit Susan Sharon

The city of Lewiston, home to one of the state's largest immigrant and refugee populations, will continue providing General Assistance to all new Mainers, at least for now. The Department of Health and Human Services recently issued a directive advising cities and towns to deny GA to undocumented immigrants. Several communities are openly defying the policy and have joined a lawsuit against the state. But Lewiston's City Council has chosen to wait at least another month before taking an official stand. In the first of two reports, Susan Sharon looks at who these new immigrants are, why they're here and what's at stake.

They're often called "illegal" or "undocumented," but David Allen Harris says his clients - the people at risk for losing General Assistance under the state's new directive - are neither of those things.

"People are talking about them as undocumented when it's very clear that people seeking asylum have lawful presence, as it's called, in the United States," Harris says. "They are here, they are being monitored by the U.S. Immigration Service. They have pieces of paper from the Immigration Service that tell them - we're paying attention to you. And they're told: 'Don't leave the country.'"

Don't leave the country, says Harris, or you won't be able to re-enter without starting the long and arduous asylum process all over again. In at least one case, Harris says that process of getting legal, permanent residency, has taken 10 years. He knows this because he treats torture survivors and their families at the Minds and Hearts in Harmony Program administered through Tri-County Mental Health in Lewiston.

"I have a lot of clients who are asylum seekers," he says. "And we believe that in Lewiston alone, a town of 36,000 people, there are scores - hundreds likely - of torture survivors among the refugee community, but especially among the asylum seekers."

Asylees are different from refugees, who have been accepted from abroad to come here because the U.S. government believes the person has been persecuted or faces a real threat of persecution in his or her country. Asylees are non-citizens who arrive in the United States and must then try to prove that they meet the definition of refugee.

In testimony before the Lewiston City Council Tuesday night, Fatuma Hussein, of the group United Somali Women of Maine, says asylum seekers come to the U.S. not because they want to, but because they are forced to flee situations that put their lives and their children's lives at risk.

"Many of them have experienced genocide," Hussein said. "Many of them are women and children, women who have been exposed to many violence, including sexual violence. Many of us who are Americans have never experienced that."

Hussein herself was part of the first wave of Somali refugees that began arriving in Lewiston in 2001 following a long and violent civil war. Now, about 6,000 Somalis reside in Lewiston and Auburn. Hussein says a new wave of asylum seekers is now coming to the area from countries like Angola, Rawanda and the Congo.

Sue Charron, director of social services for the city of Lewiston, is handling the wave on the front lines. She says last year only 29 refugees applied for General Assistance. But requests from asylum seekers are up dramatically.

"With the beginning of this fiscal year, which was July 1st of 2013 through June 30th of 2014, there were 70 new asylum seeker cases that applied for General Assistance," Charron said. "And the prior year was 16 and the prior year before that was 13."

Charron says of the 70 applicants for General Assistance, Charron says all 70 got help. But going forward, granting it will be more difficult. The state's new definition for unlawful immigrants includes people who have expired visas and who don't have required paperwork. Over the last three weeks, since the new DHHS directive was issued, Charron says she's identified 30 such people. The state has warned that cities and towns that do not follow the directive will jeopardize state reimbursement funding for GA.

"The first couple three months is not dramatic," said Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett. Barrett advised the council Tuesday night that, so far, the amount of money Lewiston could lose from the state by continuing to dole out GA to all new Mainers is not significant. But as time goes on, Barrett says the figure will grow.

"Once we get down into later in the year we may be looking at something closer to the range of $10,000 a month, which does start to add up quickly."

But asylum seekers are hoping the city and others around Maine will choose to continue providing what they say is a lifeline. They point out that rules prohibit them from seeking work until after they've been in the country for several months.

Ana Pemba is a gospel singer from Angola who says she was targeted, and one of her cousins was executed, after she released an album that was critical of her government. Speaking through an interpreter, she said going to the U.S. was the only way to save her life.

"I am awaiting asylum so that I can become an active member of this society," Pemba said. "So I beg you, by the grace of God, to let us wait for our work permits. We are not lazy. We are hard workers and we want to be independent. Please do not cut General Assistance to asylum seekers like me. Thank you."

The Lewiston City Council is expected to consider that request at its next meeting Aug. 12.