The Universal Notebook: Asylum seekers mistreated in Texas, welcomed in Maine

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Asylum seekers in Texas who risked their lives to get from Venezuela to the United States were lied to, tricked and flown to Massachusetts by Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott in one of the most egregious Republican dirty tricks in years.

The good people of Martha’s Vineyard, bless them, welcomed the refugees with open arms.

What we are seeing play out almost daily now is how the total failure by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington to develop a comprehensive immigration policy has placed the burden of caring for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants on municipalities.

Edgar Allen BeemHere in Maine we have asylum seekers arriving all the time, many fleeing political violence in Africa. A network of social service, nonprofits and government agencies has been created to welcome them to Greater Portland and to help them get settled.

Over the past year, more than 1,500 asylum seekers have been housed in hotels and motels in Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Freeport and Saco at a cost of some $1 million a month. Typically, Portland pays as much as $10,000 per month per family out of its general assistance funds and is then reimbursed from state and federal funds.

Anti-immigrant Republicans will look at the exorbitant cost of housing refugees and argue for not housing them at all. That was essentially Donald Trump’s policy. But that’s not the American way.

Just coincidentally, the $12 million it is costing to house 1,500 refugees for a year is the same amount of money Florida has budgeted to transport refugees out of state. Since Florida didn’t have any refugees of its own to ship off, Gov. DeSantis stole some from Texas. It cost him $1.56 million to fly 48 Venezuelans to Martha’s Vineyard. Mainers get more bang for their buck and more balm for their mortal souls.

Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, points out that immigrants are the future of the Maine economy. We have a critical labor shortage and an aging population, so if we are going to get any work done we are going to have to look to immigrants.

In 1980, the U.S. admitted 207,000 refugees. In 2020, thanks to Trump xenophobia, that number shrank to 18,000 on its way toward zero.

“We need to accept more refugees,” argues Jalali, himself a refugee from Iran.

Not only do we need more refugees, we need an immigration policy that provides a path to citizenship. Admit more refugees and allow them to work for citizenship.

In the short term, as laid out in a May 20 letter signed by 79 non-profit groups, Maine needs to respond at the state level by creating a state agency to coordinate refugee resettlement, work that is currently overwhelming non-profits.

At the local level, municipalities need to build more public housing and convert existing buildings into short-term housing. It makes no sense to pay rent of $10,000 a month to house a family in a hotel. That’s the mortgage on a million dollar home for heaven’s sake.

Hard to say what it will take to break out of the current crisis and conflict over immigration in order to get some national leadership on the issue. But, as Reza Jalali says, “Immigration is the plot of the American story.”

“We need immigrants more than they need us,” Jalali says. “Their future is our future.”

One thing’s for sure: every single asylum seeker in the United States is already a better American than either Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.


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