During a recent television interview, a Portland reporter appeared surprised to hear that African asylum seekers had been arriving in Lewiston for years. He was also unaware of the fact that during the past four years, African asylum seekers made up, on average, about 83% of all new immigrant arrivals processed by Social Services.

Phil Nadeau

Though both Lewiston and Portland have experienced increases in African asylum seeker arrivals, both cities have been unable to answer what has contributed to these increases beyond the U.S. border. Though I have retired from public service, my interest in looking deeper into the Maine African asylum seeker numbers produced the following perspective.

Much has been published locally about Portland’s 300 asylum seekers from San Antonio. The New York Times reported that both San Antonio and Customs officials have knowledge of Portland and Maine’s policy to lend support to asylum seekers and reported the speculation that this may or may not be responsible for the arrivals. What has been less publicized in Maine is the impact that many Trump administration and European Union refugee policies may be exerting on increasing African arrivals at the U.S. border.
According to Mexico’s interior ministry, 1,900 new African migrants arrived in Mexico during the first four months of 2019 — triple the number during the same four months of 2018.  Additionally, the ministry reported that, in 2018, some 3,000 Africans were temporarily residing in Mexico awaiting U.S. entry — a number five times higher than in 2013.
It is important to note that African arrivals at the border are a fraction (less than 0.5%) of the 100,000-plus migrants apprehended since March. Also, consider that between 1983 and 2001 (not including 1988 and 1989) more than 1,000,000 migrants annually were apprehended at U.S. borders, an average of approximately 83,000 people per month. Very few African migrants came to the U.S. border during this period.  Compare that to the past five fiscal years where monthly apprehensions dropped to approximately 42,000 per month. During that period, African-U.S. border arrivals began to increase.
In the U.S., what was, in years past, a small number of Africans attempting to secure a trans-Atlantic flight or boat trip to South America, followed by a difficult and dangerous journey to the U.S. border, is now being seen as a high-risk but doable option. The Migration Policy Institute reported that Trump administration actions to limit migrant entry into the U.S., and recent EU refugee policy decisions, have resonated globally. The EU policy focus has been to restrict or block entry and the U.S. has followed suit. Consequently, many who seek refuge see a narrowing window to gain entry into the U.S. and EU.
In the EU, Council leaders implemented a 2018 policy to create regional disembarkation platforms outside the EU following the 2015 arrival of more than 1,000,000 migrants.  Located in Libya, these disembarkation detention facilities serve migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Apprehended by EU-trained and equipped Libyan Coast Guard personnel, migrants are returned to Libya and placed in locally operated detention centers while awaiting limited UN evacuation opportunities to Niger. Many detainees are from sub-Saharan countries like Congo and Angola.
Similar to the EU response, the Trump administration’s recent implementation of the migration protection protocols, aka, the “Remain in Mexico” policy, are resulting in sending more apprehended migrants to Mexico for asylum processing.
Fareed Zakaria’s column (June 30) declared that U.S. asylum policy created the current border “crisis.” I do not understand why he did not make clear that this “humanitarian” crisis is inextricably linked to recent EU and U.S. refugee policy actions and to the growing instability around the world which has pushed the number of globally displaced persons to more than 70 million people — a record, according to the UN.
Zakaria’s call to also toughen U.S. asylum policy is precisely what has happened in both the EU and the U.S. — yet the numbers are increasing at U.S. borders. In April, the Trump administration proposed new asylum rules that would cut off any available immigration relief for U.S asylum seekers once they apply for asylum.
In the end, people will move to seek safety in the face of hopelessness and death. I fear that the U.S. will see more Africans risk the trans-Atlantic trip in the face of increasing hopelessness.
Phil Nadeau served as Lewiston’s Deputy City Administrator from 1999 to 2017. He served as the city’s primary media and public contact for immigration information and policy and has been published nationally and was a contributing author in the book “Somalis in Maine.”

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