Asylum seekers mill about the city’s family shelter after dinner in late February. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is calling on federal officials at the southern border to stop accepting asylum seekers bound for Portland and other communities without first verifying the municipality’s capacity to help.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Collins said Portland is becoming overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers coming into the city, where municipal officials have made a series of temporary arrangements to provide emergency shelter and at times have only been able to provide chairs for people to sleep in. Collins’ letter also requests information about what role the agency plays in transporting people to the state.

Municipal officials have scrambled to provide shelter and services to asylum seekers, who are primarily from African countries and ill-prepared for Maine’s cold winter.

“Maine communities have done their part to assist asylum seekers in need, but these communities are strained far beyond their capacity,” the letter says. “Allowing additional asylum seekers to travel to Maine without first confirming that these individuals will have a place to sleep is irresponsible and could lead to tragedy. I urge you to take immediate action to prevent that from happening.”

While welcomed by city officials, Collins’ letter drew harsh criticism from a prominent Portland-based immigrant advocacy group that said it could put suffering migrants in more danger.

Portland and surrounding areas aren’t the only communities struggling to meet the needs of asylum seekers and other people who are homeless. Last fall, states including Texas and Florida relocated asylum seekers to other parts of the country, such as Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.


And New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently announced plans to create a new office to coordinate services for the roughly 50,000 asylum seekers who have arrived there since last spring, while also looking for ways to send some of the newcomers to other communities willing to accept them, the New York Times reported.

Those who show up at the border and declare their intent to seek asylum are initially detained and processed by immigration officials. They are allowed to remain in the country while their applications are pending and are required to provide authorities a destination address. Once inside the country, asylum seekers are allowed to move freely and can reside anywhere, although they must be able to appear in a designated immigration court as their case is reviewed.

While some asylum seekers are reuniting with family members or friends, many are giving border officials the address of Portland’s emergency shelter and social services offices. Some asylum seekers arriving in the city have told the Press Herald that they learned about Portland as a possible destination from family members or from other migrants they met on the long journey through Central America and Mexico to the southern border.

Last spring, city officials notified border officials and area organizations that it could no longer guarantee housing to asylum seekers, but that has done little to stem the flow.

Since Jan. 1, the city has seen 743 new asylum seekers arrive in need of shelter, a city spokesperson said Tuesday. That’s up sharply from 550 as of the end of February, when the interim city manager issued a warning that “a cliff may be coming where we can’t meet the need.”

Collins, a Republican, is looking to slow the influx and is seeking information from the Department Homeland Security about its role in transporting asylum seekers to Maine.


“I request that, going forward, DHS verify all destination addresses prior to allowing entry into the country, thereby ensuring that asylum seekers have a safe, reliable destination, and that municipalities are not stretched beyond capacity,” she wrote.

Senator Susan Collins Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Collins’ letter also poses a series of questions to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, giving him a deadline of March 24 to respond.

In addition to asking to what extent DHS verifies destination addresses and a city’s capacity to help, she asks whether DHS is “directly or indirectly, facilitating the transportation of asylum seekers” and requesting data on the number of asylum seekers who declared their intent to travel to Maine in each of the last five years.

The DHS public affairs office did not respond Friday to questions about Collins’ letter or about the extent to which officials verify and check on addresses provided by asylum seekers.


The Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project strongly condemned Collins’ letter in a written statement Friday afternoon. The group said what Collins is requesting undermines international treaty obligations and would subject vulnerable families that have fled violence and persecution to more suffering in Mexico.


The group provides legal assistance to asylum seekers in Maine and said it understands the “massive and urgent resource challenges” facing the city and other service providers. But Collins’ proposal “would address resource issues by denying humanitarian protection and forcing vulnerable people into even more dangerous situations,” the statement said.

Steeve Maboya, a Portland Family Shelter employee, helps set up the chairs that asylum seekers will sleep upright in the overflow space in the shelter on Feb. 10. The families are all moved outside while staff sweeps and mop the floor after dinner and then they set up and sanitize the chairs before they call the families back inside. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Senator Collins’ request that ‘DHS verify all destination addresses prior to allowing entry into the country’ would undermine the United States’ international treaty obligations and does not reflect the realities that migrants are facing. People arriving at the border have been forced from their homes and are looking for a safe place, something all of us deserve,” it said. “We know that the effect of proposals like this – which add more barriers to an already-inaccessible system – leave asylum seekers stranded in Mexico, where they have been assaulted, abducted, raped and murdered.”

Collins’ spokeswoman, Annie Clark, did not respond directly to the legal group’s criticism but said the senator “worked closely with Portland city officials and state legislative leadership in elevating this issue to DHS at their request.”

“Portland is very welcoming, and we share the city’s view that asylum seekers must be able to arrive to a safe environment where they can access the resources they need,” Clark said. “If not carefully managed, this could turn into a humanitarian crisis.”

Portland city officials said they didn’t specifically request the letter, but welcomed the communication and hope that it would raise awareness of Portland’s challenges and provide additional information for policymakers looking to address capacity issues.

“When people come here, we want them to be able to have a place that’s warm and safe, where there’s access to services that can be responsive to their needs,” Mayor Kate Snyder said.


While officials may ensure the addresses provided by asylum seekers are valid with the postal service, Snyder said it’s also important to ensure basic services are available at the destination so asylum seekers are not surprised when they arrive and no beds are available.

“If they list the Family Shelter … but all the beds are full, that feels like important information to share with people on a bus and coming here,” she said. “We don’t want people in chairs. We want people to be able to lay down and sleep at night.”

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said she is glad Collins is elevating this issue with federal officials and looks forward to hearing their response to her questions. But she questioned whether border officials have the time or resources to verify addresses for every asylum seeker and worries that families will end up spending more time in custody at the border.

Chitam said letters sent to agencies at the border by Portland and South Portland to discourage people from coming to Maine had little effect. She said many people showed up to Portland with a copy of the city’s letter saying they could not be guaranteed shelter.


Collins said in a written statement Friday that she discussed the issue last week with Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, when Talbot Ross was in Washington, D.C. last month.


Talbot Ross said in a written statement on Friday that she discussed a range of issues with Collins, including efforts to allow asylum seekers to work sooner than allowed under current federal law.

“Additionally, I also raised an ongoing concern brought to us by the city of Portland regarding the verification of addresses,” she said. “Ultimately, Maine needs additional support, resources and immediate action from the federal government to ensure our new Maine residents have an opportunity to succeed.”

Talbot Ross also said that Maine should continue to be a welcoming community.

“Maine has a long history of being a welcoming community,” Talbot Ross said. “It should be no different for those seeking asylum. We must ensure all people are treated with dignity, respect and provided safe harbor.”

The process of seeking asylum is long and complicated. It can take months for an individual to file a viable asylum claim, which requires evidence that the person faces violence or persecution in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or belonging to a particular social group.

Court backlogs mean it can often take years for cases to be decided. Meanwhile, asylum seekers must wait at least six month before they can apply for a work permit and become self-sufficient. Most new arrivals in Portland rely in Maine’s General Assistance program to meet basic needs for shelter, food and medicine until they can provide for themselves.


Maine, like other areas of the country, is also facing a housing shortage, forcing many families to rely on the city’s emergency shelter system, which for years has been stretched beyond capacity. Other community and religious groups also are trying to meet the need, with assistance from the state.

Avesta Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, is planning to provide temporary, transitional housing for asylum seekers in a new 52-unit apartment building in South Portland. Those families are currently living in hotels using federal funds, which will run out next months.

“Perhaps most troubling,” Collins wrote, “the surge of asylum seekers in Maine now means that housing facilities are beyond capacity and Mainers in need of shelter have nowhere to go.”

Maine’s congressional delegation has been trying to allow asylum seekers to work sooner, saying a shorter wait for work permits can help address the existing workforce shortage and the need for public assistance. But those efforts have failed as partisan and regional politics have prevented immigration reforms.

Both Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree have reintroduced bills to reduce that waiting period from six months to 30 days. And Pingree told the Press Herald that she’s expecting to run a “full-court press” on the bill this year.



State lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering a bill from Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, that would take a novel approach by requesting a waiver from the federal government to allow Maine asylum seekers to work sooner than in other states.

Pingree wrote a column published in The Hill on Friday in support of her bill, saying it would help relieve social services costs for municipalities. She said 2,000 asylum seekers arrived in Portland in 2022.

“Local leaders have done everything possible to support people seeking safety, but our shelters are overwhelmed to the point that people are sleeping upright and municipal resources are depleted,” Pingree wrote.

In a written statement to the Press Herald, Pingree did not say whether she supports Collins’ effort to have border officials verify the destination of asylum seekers before they come to Maine. She acknowledged the “increasingly challenging situation for both asylum seekers and local resources,” while emphasizing that asylum seekers have a legal right to be here and ultimately benefit the state.

“Rather than turning our backs on those who are fleeing unimaginable horrors, we should be fixing the counterintuitive process that keeps asylum seekers dependent on local resources – which is current federal law,” Pingree said. “Allow asylum seekers to support themselves and their families, ease major challenges with workforce shortages, and release the strain on local shelters and government resources. It just makes sense.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Angus King, an independent who is co-sponsoring Collins’ work authorization bill, said he shares Collins’ concerns and has been working directly with state lawmakers, as well as officials from Portland and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He did not comment directly on the destination verification proposal.

A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills did not directly answer a question about whether Mills supports the destination verification request, but expressed support for the asylum work authorization bills sponsored by Collins, King and Pingree.

“The governor supports efforts to reduce pressure on Maine communities that are supporting people seeking asylum and looks forward to the Department of Homeland Security’s response to Senator Collins’ letter,” spokesperson Scott Ogden said in a written statement.

Staff Writers Rachel Ohm and Eric Russell contributed to this report. 

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