A new normal for Portland?

By Jonette Christian

Asylum applicants are pouring into Portland. Traveling through Africa and South America, they bypass safe countries, like Panama and Costa Rica, heading for Portland. Why Portland? Portland has a unique program for asylum seekers, providing rental payments to landlords, legal aid etc., described by The New York Times as “the only fund of its kind in the country.”

Maine’s generosity is commendable. But it’s not unlimited, and we have a problem. We have no control over future numbers. And until Congress acts, neither does the federal government.

In April, 99,000 migrants were apprehended illegally crossing the border. In May, it was 144,000. More than a million are expected this year. Although most come from Central America, people all over the world are learning that if they bring a child and claim asylum, they get in. And Maine will be exceptionally generous.

Many asylum seekers will ultimately be deemed economic migrants, not bona fide refugees, and their applications will be denied in immigration court. Will they leave voluntarily when their applications are denied? Or, will they join the illegal population, purchasing fraudulent documents to get jobs, colluding with unscrupulous employers, working under the table and avoiding taxes?

With a backlog of 800,000 cases, it takes years for our courts to process the applications, which gives applicants time to settle in, have children and position themselves for the next amnesty, claiming it would be too cruel to separate families.

In response to their own migrant crisis, Europeans radically changed their policies and we might learn something from their experience. When Angela Merkel opened Europe to Syrian refugees in 2015, European politicians initially welcomed the migrants. But many Europeans didn’t agree. Shockingly, right wing parties exploded in power and numbers. In response to the surge in right wing populism, and the unexpected costs and problems with integration, European governments took decisive action, rapidly restricting asylum, deporting illegal migrants and requiring assimilation to European values.

The UK had already experienced major demographic change from migration. The Brexit vote promised to remove Britain from EU migration policies. In recent elections, the Brexit Party made substantial gains.

After receiving 1.6 million refugees, Germany changed course. Deportations rose as Germany removed migrants who did not qualify as refugees.

Early in the migrant crisis, the Swedish prime minister declared, “My Europe does not build walls.” Two years later, his government called for deporting 80,000, expanding police raids, unannounced workplace checks, setting sharply higher fines on employers and requiring economic self-sufficiency on petitions for family reunification.

Austria, an EU member, is enforcing the EU’s “Dublin regulation,” which requires migrants to apply in the first “safe” country they arrive in. Refugees aren’t supposed to “shop” for the country with the best programs. Austria is denying applicants who crossed safe countries.

France tightened the rules for asylum, shortened application deadlines and made deportation faster for those whose applications were denied.

Italy closed its ports to humanitarian rescue ships and threatened to fine humanitarian organizations.

While right wing parties gained power all over Europe, in Denmark, a left wing progressive prime minister resoundingly won her recent election, attracting new voters, by advocating a cap on non-Western immigration, training in Danish values and mandatory work requirements.

Since adopting these measures, Europe has experienced a 92 percent decline in asylum applications from 2015 levels. Unlike European governments, the U.S. Congress dithers, paralyzed and indecisive about restricting immigration, but well able to take action when it comes to the interests of illegal immigrants, and the employers who want more foreign worker visas. In the midst of our border crisis, with laughable timing, House Democrats just passed “The American Dream and Promise Act,” amnesty number eight for millions, with no provisions to stop the next group.

Portland is responding to the needs of many new people with generosity and good spirit. But unless Congress passes asylum reform and begins enforcing our immigration and refugee laws, then what’s happening in Portland today may well become the new normal, not a temporary crisis.

Jonette Christian of Holden is a member of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy.

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