Protesters shelter from the rain outside the Portland Expo on June 28, 2023. Asylum seekers housed inside the building had staged a demonstration, complaining about living conditions and expressing anxiety over where they will go when the building's makeshift shelter closes in August. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Some of the asylum seekers staying at the Portland Expo participated in one of the most American of rituals last week — petitioning for redress of their grievances.

It was easy to portray the new arrivals in Maine as entitled and ungrateful. They are getting free housing and food. What do they have to complain about, this line of thinking goes.

Taking a step back and looking at the whole picture, it becomes increasingly clear that many immigrants to Maine are caught in a bad situation not of their making. A broken immigration system, federal law that prevents some immigrants from being able to quickly go to work, lack of a coordinated statewide plan for new arrivals and an extremely tight housing market have combined to make a stressful situation worse.

To be sure, municipal leaders — especially those in Portland and South Portland — and state officials deserve credit for quickly responding to last week’s concerns and for continually stepping up to provide shelter and other necessities for the hundreds of people who have arrived in Maine in recent months.

The problem is that solutions — especially long-term ones — are hard to come up with.

On Wednesday, several people who are staying at the Portland Expo protested the conditions there. They held signs and spoke of poor sleeping and sanitary conditions, and of being served food that was old and had sickened people. They also expressed anxiety about where they will go when the Expo is slated to stop housing them in mid-August.

“Where are we going to go?” a cardboard sign asked.

About 270 people, most of them from African countries, are housed at the sports facility in downtown Portland. A federal law prohibits those seeking asylum in the United States from working until at least six months after they apply for asylum. Maine’s congressional delegation has been working to reduce this time period, but has yet to be successful. Lawmakers passed a resolution directing the Maine Department of Labor to ask for a waiver from the federal rules. The sentiment is welcome, although there is no provision in federal law for such waivers.

This means that the asylum seekers are heavily reliant on general assistance and donations as they begin new lives in the U.S. This situation is frustrating immigrants, employers, policymakers and taxpayers.

“We need more help from our surrounding communities,” Portland City Manager Danielle West said after meeting with asylum seekers at the Expo on Wednesday. “We need more help from the state. We need more help from the federal government. We’ve consistently asked for that.”

On Friday, Portland officials asked the state to support a proposal to house up to 600 asylum seekers at Unity Environmental University in central Maine or to have the Maine National Guard open and operate a shelter. The college in Unity has many unused dorms and has been proposed as temporary housing for new arrivals. Unlike Portland, however, it doesn’t have a breadth of services or employment opportunities. Reception to the idea in Unity, as reported by the Portland Press Herald, was lukewarm at best.

A group in Aroostook County is also exploring how the region can welcome and support more immigrants. The County, like many areas of the state, has a need for more workers, but affordable housing remains a concern.

Maine has long been welcome to newcomers and will continue to be a welcoming place. The stresses placed on those seeking asylum in the U.S., however, are unsustainable. So, too, are the stresses placed on their host communities.

Both are caught up in a broken immigration system, with a nonsensical work authorization waiting period in a time and place with a shortage of affordable housing. In the short term, extending temporary housing is essential. In the long term, supporting welcoming communities beyond Cumberland County and continuing to push for common-sense changes in immigration policies remain essential.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...