PORTLAND — A patchwork effort by municipal general assistance, nonprofit groups and churches is increasingly unable to assist the city’s growing population of asylum seekers.
“I wish there was more assistance we could give,” said Doug Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department. “Frankly, this is a real emerging issue for the city.”
The number of asylum seekers requesting aid from the city has nearly tripled in three years, Gardner said.
In fiscal 2010, the city had 94 cases of asylum seekers requesting assistance. With four months left in fiscal 2012, the number has already reached 148 cases and is on pace to exceed the 169 cases the city saw in fiscal 2011.
Most newly arrived asylum seekers are from the great lakes region of central Africa, countries like Burundi, Rwanda, and the Congo, which have been ripped apart by civil wars.
Asylum seekers, like refugees, typically fear persecution in their home countries because of their religions, ethnicities, or political opinions. The governments in their countries are unable, or unwilling, to protect them.
At an event at Hope Gateway United Methodist Church at 185 High St. on Sunday, a series of Burundians including a journalist and an opposition politician spoke about enduring torture and narrowly surviving ethnically and politically motivated massacres.
Their stories were often outlines that merely alluded to the horrors that still scar their minds and bodies; the politician said he could not repeat what he experienced in a government prison. “So many have suffered,” he said through an interpreter.
Unlike refugees, with whom the city has been working for more than a decade, asylum seekers do not have permanent residency status when they arrive in America. But they may have valid student, visitation, or other visas, said Hayden Anderson, the interim executive director of the Immigrant Legal Assistance Program (ILAP), a non-profit that helps asylum seekers go through the complicated legal process of applying for asylum.
Asylum seekers must apply for the legal status within one year of arrival in the U.S., but until their applications have been approved they are not allowed to work, and are ineligible for state and federal assistance.
For many, that leaves local general assistance as their main source of support.
And while the city typically spends more on an asylum seeker than the average GA recipient – “simply because (they) aren’t eligible for other assistance,” Gardner said – the program doesn’t cover some essential costs, like apartment security deposits, or the legal fees associated with applying for asylum status.
That results in a scramble by churches and nonprofits to pick up what slack they can.
ILAP is the hub that connects the asylum-seeking community and the churches, but its resources are also limited. Stretched by the dozens of asylum seekers that came each week in search of legal aid, ILAP stopped taking new walk-in cases in early 2010, Anderson said. Thanks to a vigorous recruiting effort to find volunteer lawyers, new staff, and a renewed sense of energy, they now take walk-in cases on Friday mornings, but can not promise lawyers to everyone.
“The demand out there far outstrips the number of possible volunteer lawyers,” Anderson said.
Since the fall of 2011, local congregations like the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church and Hope Gateway have been formalizing their support programs, working especially closely with Burundians.
First Parish began a Safe Haven program in November and now actively supports five Burundians, paying the legal fees for two of their asylum applications, the Rev. Christina Sillari said.
Success came quickly to the program.
Its first beneficiary, Luc Mpangaje, a musician who fled Burundi after his politically charged songs attracted government ire and threats, received asylum status around Christmas, with only a French-speaking translator from the church to aid him at his interview with federal immigration officials in Boston.
Only 11 percent of applicants who do not have legal aid are approved for asylum, according to ILAP.
“If I try to compare my case to other asylum seekers, I consider myself a lucky guy,” said Mpangaje, who has since begun working in a temporary overnight position at Idexx laboratories. He said he hopes to save enough money to bring his wife and children from Burundi, but recognizes it will take time and patience.
In many regards, the efforts of the church amount to little more than a drop in the bucket.
In November, the church and Mpangaje held a fundraising concert for the Safe Haven program that took in $4,000, Sillari said. While encouraging, the amount does not even completely cover the fees for two people’s immigration lawyers going through the asylum process, she said.
Church leaders including Sillari and the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of Hope Gateway have expressed hope that area congregations will make an effort to streamline their collective efforts on asylum issues. The churches could make things more efficient and more effective by working together, Ewing-Merrill said.
Churches have many issues to work on, he said, especially with high numbers of resident Mainers also struggling.
“Its not like we can devote all our energy to this one thing, which complicates it,” he said.
Luc Mpangaje, a Burundian singer and musician who escaped from his country’s oppressive leadership, was recently granted asylum in the United States. Mpangaje is one of several hundred people from African countries who are in Portland and have or are going through the application process for asylum, during which immigrants are only eligible for municipal general assistance.