Editor’s note: Park officials said Saturday that Acadia plans to stay open through Sunday, Oct. 1 if the federal government shuts down.
Last week, Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order to create an Office of New Americans to both support and draw on the talents of recent arrivals to the state.
The first step is for a group to create a plan for the office by January.
With hundreds of immigrants facing an imminent departure from their temporary housing at the Portland Expo and the city looking at other communities for help, this initially felt like slow-moving bureaucracy at a time when urgent action is needed.
Maybe we haven’t paid close enough attention, or maybe the full picture hasn’t been explained. But officials from the state, several communities and many nonprofits have been working together for years on new housing options and other services for the hundreds of asylum seekers who are coming to Maine, as well as for Mainers who are homeless. This work is largely supported with recent infusions of funding from the Legislature and coordinated by MaineHousing.
This work, which includes hundreds of new housing units, will be enhanced and better coordinated by the new state government office.
“We applaud the governor’s executive order and support the creation of a new state-level Office of New Americans,” Mufalo Chitam, executive director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said in a press release from the governor’s office. “It has been impossible to keep up with new immigrant arrivals in Maine without one entity to coordinate the multiple agencies, organizations, and municipalities performing this work. Such an office can help address this need, and we look forward to assisting in the effort to develop a strong plan for its creation.”
Such coordination is long overdue. As we’ve written before, the federal government has largely abdicated its responsibilities as the influx of those coming to America seeking asylum has stretched the resources of many U.S. cities. More than 1,600 asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, have arrived in Maine so far this year, most of them to Portland. The city has long asked for state-level coordination to respond to the influx.
The governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future became more directly involved after Portland area officials proposed housing asylum seekers at Unity Environmental University because the school, in Unity, has a lot of unused dorm space. That proposal is now on hold.
Now the Office of Policy Innovation and the Future will oversee the creation of this new office, which has been needed for some time.
Although Portland, along with South Portland and, more recently Saco, are home to the majority of recently arrived asylum seekers, the state has played a significant role in housing them.
For example, emergency housing funding provided by the Legislature will support housing for more than 600 individuals or families, mostly in southern Maine. New housing units have been built in South Portland and are being built in Brunswick where the state will cover the first two years of rent for the families of asylum seekers. The state is also paying for long-term hotel rooms in South Portland and Saco for asylum seekers. Services, such as English classes and job fairs will be offered at these housing facilities.
Under federal law, asylum seekers cannot apply for work permits until at least six months after they have filed an asylum petition, leaving them with no immediate sources of income. This is nonsensical. Mills, along with the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation, has been pushing for a change in federal law to allow asylum seekers to work more quickly, which will also benefit the many Maine businesses that are struggling to find workers.
While there is rightly attention on helping asylum seekers, the state has also allocated and spent a significant amount of money on building new shelters and supported housing for Mainers who are homeless. In addition, Greg Payne, the governor’s senior housing advisor, explained, when asylum seekers who are currently living in emergency shelters are moved to more permanent housing, these shelter spaces will be available to those who are homeless.
“This type of permanent infrastructure is critically needed to help immigrants in Maine put down roots and thrive,” Sue Roche, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said in a statement applauding the new office. “Our state is in need of the growth, experience, and knowledge that immigrants bring and this investment will be a tremendous benefit to our larger Maine community.”
Maine does need newcomers. Those new Mainers and the cities where they live also need a better coordinated approach to their housing and services, and federal law needs to be changed to allow them to work more quickly after their arrival.