LEWISTON — Mayor Bob Macdonald says he has bluntly asked the Rev. Jean-Pierre Tshamala to stop encouraging asylum-seekers to move to Lewiston.
Macdonald maintains the pastor is building his flock at the city’s expense.
“I’ve told him, ‘We cannot afford it. I understand your situation, but you have to remember, the people here, we’re at a breaking point,'” Macdonald said in an interview with the Sun Journal this week.
“We’re hurting,” the mayor said. “I have compassion, but my compassion is more toward the people who have lived here all their lives, who are paying this high tax rate, as opposed to (those who) basically fraudulently come in here to the country and now expect us to help them out.”
Unlike refugees approved in advance to enter the United States and given federal funds to help resettle, people seeking asylum — called asylees — generally enter the country through a travel or student visa and declare once here that they’re unable to go home. Until they’re granted asylum, which can take years, they get no federal benefits and are restricted from working for six months.
“The problem with asylee funding is that there literally is no funding,” said Lewiston Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau. “We don’t agree with the federal government’s decision not to provide any federal assistance. For a lot of people in the community, they find it very hard to understand why the federal government takes that position, and we understand that.”
In this state, though, there’s a rare stopgap: Maine is one of only a few states that offer General Assistance to asylum-seekers. Since July 2011, Lewiston’s General Assistance Program has helped dozens — 103 in the past six months — with basic expenses such as food, rent, utilities and prescriptions.
In recent years, the city has helped 600-plus families of all types annually through the GA program. It’s a cost split partly with the state.
Lewiston has one active asylum-seeking GA case dating back to 2009, but most receive help for an average of two to three years, according to Sue Charron, the city’s director of social services.
None have reached out for General Assistance in Auburn, according to that city.
It’s an expense that Macdonald cites as helping put Lewiston “on the brink of a financial crisis,” and something Gov. Paul LePage is trying to stop this year with a proposed rule change at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The change would align General Assistance with other types of benefit eligibility requirements; cities would have the discretion to help asylum-seekers, but wouldn’t have to. The rule is making its way through DHHS after a comment period before heading to the Attorney General’s Office to be vetted for legality by June.
Macdonald, who strongly supports the change, said he met with Tshamala and LePage not long ago to talk about immigration.
“(The Rev. Tshamala) told the governor his plight and the governor was sympathetic; he’s going to look into some things,” Macdonald said. “What (Tshamala) also said, and I almost had a heart attack, he said there’s 60 families right now living in hotels in Portland, (and) ‘Maybe we should bring them to Lewiston.’ Well, I mean, we might as well shut the city down if that happens.”
Macdonald said he’s reached out to Maine’s U.S. senators to see if any help can come in expediting work permits for asylum-seekers — if they’re able to avoid a six-month wait to get the OK to work, that could improve the situation here.
“It’s like you’re caught in a no-win situation,” Macdonald said. “If we could get them a work visa, there’s a lot of jobs here; they could help. They’re engineers, they’re doctors, accountants. They’re professional people and we could use them here. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.”
He said he planned a follow-up letter to the delegation this week. Also on his letter list: the city of Portland.
Eight asylum-seeking families shifted from Portland’s GA rolls to Lewiston’s last year with Portland picking up the costs for the first 30 days in the new city and Lewiston bearing the rest.
“We’re going to tell Portland to stop this, to cease and desist,” Macdonald said. “I don’t care if you send the regular refugees up, the ones that are in here legally. Fine; no problem. But these (asylum-seekers) cost us everything — food, clothing, shelter, medicine. Some of these people have expensive medicines.”
Doug Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, said those eight families, already in Portland’s family shelter program, wanted to move up here. Lewiston has been an option because of its affordable housing and for those looking for apartments with more bedrooms, he said.
“We would never require somebody to move to another community,” Gardner said. “It is only if folks are interested in doing that, and we have heard there are several families and single men and women who have moved based on Pastor Jean-Pierre’s church.”
Only 12 states offer General Assistance or something very similar, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and only some make it available to asylum-seekers.
Nadeau said it’s a “legitimate question” to ask if people are moving to Maine because of those benefits, but one he’s not able to answer.
“It wouldn’t be hard to understand why somebody would raise that,” he said. “We’ve always said at the city level we literally don’t have the time to pursue why they elected to move to this state or a given community; we have to deal with the result. Once they’re here, what is it we do?”
Tshamala said he understands from Macdonald that “this community is very poor, they don’t have money.”
He added, “In Portland now, I would say that it’s full, no housing. People stay in shelters now for more than three months. People are coming every week. They will continue to come as they come; there is nothing we can do to stop that.”
Asylum-seekers versus refugees
According to Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland:
* Both asylees and immigrants have fled their home countries and argue they can’t return due to circumstances such as political or religious persecution.
* Refugees apply to get into the U.S. from outside the country, frequently from a refugee camp. If approved, aid money follows them to the U.S. to settle in, helped by groups such as Catholic Charities.
* Asylum-seekers apply to be allowed to stay after arriving in the U.S., often here on a visitor or student visa. There is no federal aid money. Paperwork can take 100 hours for just one person to apply for asylum here, requiring the same steps refugees took in applying from a distance. Approval can take months or years and once granted, asylees qualify for the same federal benefits as refugees.
* 150 days after applying for asylum, asylum-seekers can file an application for a work permit.
“Since 2009, we’ve had an over 400 percent increase in asylum-seekers. It’s been a pretty steady flow,” Roche said.
She said she couldn’t explain the uptick other than once people start arriving in a community, word spreads.