Short Relief: Assistance for asylum-seekers is a balancing act

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The 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and 1967 Protocol articulated standards, procedures, rights and benefits for the protection of persons fleeing persecution.

Since then, about 150 countries have joined the convention. They have been trying to harmonize and align their laws, standards and procedures, with varying degrees of success.

In theory, people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion are entitled to international protection.

There are two main types of persons seeking protection: Refugees seek and obtain protection before entering their destination, sanctuary country, while asylum-seekers apply for protection after they have reached their destination country on some other basis, such as on a tourist, work or student visa.

There are three ways for aliens to obtain asylum once they are in the U.S.:

• Affirmatively, through Citizenship and Immigration Services, by applying within one year of arrival.

• Defensively, from an immigration judge, while in removal proceedings.

• Or derivatively, as the spouse or child of a person granted asylum.

Under federal law, people who apply for asylum are not eligible to work for at least 150 days. They are not eligible for most federal benefits, and not eligible for state or local government benefits unless the state where they reside has affirmatively provided so. There is no annual limit on the number of people who may apply for asylum.

In 2012, more than 1.03 million people became lawful permanent resident aliens of the United States. The U.S. authorized the admission of 76,000 refugees; 58,000 were admitted. About 13 percent of the country’s population was immigrants.

Maine’s 1.3 million people constituted about 0.41 percent of the nation’s population. About 47,000, or 3.5 percent, of Mainers were foreign-born. Our state gross domestic product of $52 billion constituted about 0.32 percent of the country’s GNP. Our median household income was about $48,000. The national median was about $53,000. About 13 percent of our population was living below the poverty level.

Catholic Charities is the primary provider of resettlement services to protected persons in Maine. It operates on the basis of government funding, cash donations, in-kind donations and volunteer services. For 2012, in Portland and Lewiston, it reported intakes of 468 persons, of whom 86 were asylum-seekers.

Last year, $18 million in General Assistance was distributed around the state. GA is intended to provide basic necessities for defined needs during a limited period of time. The state funded $13 million of that $18 million; $10 million was distributed in Portland, and $8 million of that came from the state. Apparently, at least $4-5 million of that was distributed to roughly 900 asylum-seekers (less than 0.1 percent of our state’s population).

That’s at least 40 percent of all GA distributed in Portland, at least 50 percent of all state funding for GA in Portland, and at least 22 percent of all GA distributed statewide. On June 25, the Portland City Council voted to spend $2.6 million to continue providing assistance to asylum-seekers after the loss of state funding. That’s the equivalent of more than 1 percent of the city budget, and more than 2 percent of the non-school budget.

I value diversity in general and reasonable immigration in particular. I believe that the fortunate have an obligation to provide for the less fortunate. I also believe in taking responsibility for yourself and living within your means.

The difficulty lies in striking a balance and setting priorities. In the case of GA for asylum-seekers, it should be done intelligently and democratically.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.