Nov. 28—When Annastasia Candido and her family arrived in Maine in August, they had no money and no home. The family had just fled Namibia, traveling 7,000 miles, seeking asylum and a safer future in the United States.
While staying in a Portland shelter, her father shared their story with immigration activist Serge Asumani. He directed them to the Asylum Application Resource Center, a program that had just been launched by a nonprofit group, Hope Acts, and the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition.
The center's twice-weekly clinic at the Portland Public Library helps asylum seekers submit their applications to the federal government.
Within a few weeks, Candido and her family had their applications filed, received "alien registration numbers" and had begun the lengthy — and often life-saving — process of obtaining asylum in the U.S.
More than 300 asylum seekers have filed their applications through the center since it opened three months ago.
Maine has welcomed thousands of asylum seekers over the past few years. The immigrants typically are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, and are allowed to remain in the U.S. while making a case in immigration court for permanent status.
Often, like some immigrants at the resource center, the applicants are reluctant to share details about what they've experienced, either because of trauma involved or fear that too much disclosure might affect their prospects for asylum.
The new Mainers come to the state for many reasons. There are ample jobs once a work authorization is granted. The state is close to Canada, which has immigration-friendly policies.
But mostly, the draw is a community of people with like backgrounds, who speak the same language and cook the same food, and who often have undergone similar, harrowing journeys.
"It provides them with a sense of home," said Ruben Torres, communications and policy lead at MIRC. "It takes away some of the fear of going somewhere new, not knowing anyone, not having an opportunity for work."
'WE DON'T KNOW WHERE TO START'
Asumani, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016, is the program assistant for Hope Acts, which provides housing, English classes and other aid to new Mainers.
The resource center was not something Hope Acts planned to take on. But people were coming into the office in droves, asking for help with their asylum applications.
When he first proposed the application clinic, he reasoned he could probably help about five people per session. A few weeks later, Asumani and a small group of volunteers and translators were helping more than four times that number.
On a Friday afternoon, nearly two dozen immigrants filed into the library basement. Those who were there for the first time were shepherded into a room to watch a video presentation by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. Those who were returning squeezed around a conference table set up with 15 laptops.
In Portuguese, French and Lingala, the immigrants dictate their personal stories and fill out lengthy paperwork. The English language barrier makes it difficult for many to complete the application, and they often have limited computer literacy.
The 12-page document asks for biographical data about the applicant, spouse and children, as well as previous addresses, educational background, employment history and addresses of parents and siblings.
There are questions about why applicants are seeking asylum; what, if any harm or mistreatment they've experienced or will experience; their history of imprisonment or any criminal history; and if they're afraid of being tortured if they return to their home country. There are questions about the nature of torture, by whom and why it would be inflicted.
The resource center doesn't offer legal assistance, but with the help of translators, volunteers and donated materials, the application isn't so daunting.
The immigrants bring their applications to Asumani, who checks every detail. He makes sure all the documentation is in place, and sends copies to the multiple authorities that require them. There is no room for error.
For the applicants, there may still be months of interviews and immigration court meetings ahead, but everything hangs in the balance until that one application is filed.
"It's the first step of a very long road," Torres said.
The asylum application, which must be submitted within one year of arrival in the country, kickstarts what service agencies call "the clock," or the 180-day waiting period before a person is eligible to receive a work permit. It's also required to qualify for food assistance and other benefits.
"The only thing we want is somewhere to live safely, work legally and contribute to the economy," Asumani said. "(But) people are dealing with a lot of trauma. Put this in front of us, and we don't know where to start."
The resource center works to fill a gap in the asylum application process that overworked attorneys can't address.
A person's odds of qualifying for asylum are substantially higher with a lawyer. In 2020, asylum seekers with legal representation were nearly twice as likely (31%) to be successful than those without (17%), according to a report from Syracuse University.
Representation is especially important for people seeking refuge in Maine, who have to go through the Boston office, which has one of the lowest acceptance rates of any office in the country. In 2021, the office granted asylum to only 11% of applicants. The national approval rate is about 27%.
The office that serves asylum seekers in and around Maine is plagued by bias and burnout, and its low grant rate is "driven by a culture of suspicion" toward asylum seekers, according to a March report by Maine legal organizations including ILAP.
But despite how crucial a role they play, there aren't enough immigration lawyers, let alone those that specialize in the asylum process.
"At the rate people are coming to Maine ... in my lifetime there will not be enough lawyers to meet the need," said Martha Stein, director of Hope Acts.
Lisa Parisio, a policy and outreach attorney at ILAP, said the organization — and asylum attorneys in general — do everything they can to help, but with only 10 on-staff attorneys and thousands of asylum seekers needing assistance, they can't get to everyone.
Asylum cases take an inordinate amount of time to put together.
Beth Stickney, founder of ILAP, estimated she's never spent fewer than 80 hours building an immigration case and then it can take years before there's a resolution.
The cases aren't lucrative, since asylum seekers often don't have money. And then there's the emotional toll of dealing with secondary trauma every day.
"I think it's not unusual for attorneys who do asylum to feel like 'Oh my God, I am the thing standing between this person being able to stay here and stay safe and them returning to a place where they were raped and tortured and may be subject to that again if not killed," Stickney said. "That's the stuff (that makes you) wake up in the middle of the night over and over again and you cannot go back to sleep."
In the absence of enough immigration lawyers to meet the demand, some asylum seekers have fallen victim to what the industry calls "bad actors," who offer to fill out and file the complicated paperwork for their countrymen for a high fee.
If these forms are ever submitted, which they frequently are not, the information may be false, embellished or incomplete, Stein said. Even well-meaning people, who try to help with the asylum process, can inadvertently do more harm than good.
In some cases, the "assistance" means the clock is never started.
An asylum applicant can apply for work authorization 150 days after filing the application and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can grant the authorization after 180 days.
Before the resource center, people would show up for the Hope Acts weekly work permit clinic claiming they'd applied for asylum 150 days prior and they were ready to apply for a work permit. But staff wouldn't be able to find them in the government system at all.
Seeing people being exploited, threatening their chances in a system that is already stacked against them, was personal to Asumani, Stein said. Starting the clinic and making sure people were getting their applications submitted correctly was one way to protect his community.
PORTLAND IS NOT UNIQUE
While she waits for her clock to run out, Candido, who speaks English, Swahili, Portuguese and Afrikaans, has been volunteering at the resource center doing some administrative work. She wants to pursue business administration.
She hopes more people will find out about the program and visit so they can fill out their forms "the right way, the safer way."
The program is on pause until January while MIRC works to increase its impact with more laptops, more volunteers, culturally appropriate translators and more frequent and more convenient hours.
Following the popularity of the pilot, Asumani and Stein are also brainstorming how to keep the program going and how to replicate it across the state.
The problems facing Portland's asylum seekers are not unique to the city. Asumani said people have been traveling from all corners of Maine for help with their applications.
For Mardochee Mbongi, president of the Congolese Community of Maine and a volunteer at the clinic, it's a powerful tool that helps bridge the gap between services and need, and it's one way he can give back to his community.
Simply put: "I'm an immigrant, I'm here to help immigrants," he said. "This is something we have to surround with support so it can be a permanent response ... It is powerful."