Hundreds of asylum seekers in Maine could see their cases further delayed because of a Trump administration directive to shift resources from offices in Newark, New Jersey, and Boston to handle cases at the southern border.

Asylum seekers leave the Portland Expo on Aug. 15, when the city closed its temporary shelter there. Their asylum cases stand to be delayed because of a shift of federal resources to the southern border. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The move is the latest by President Trump as he seeks to manage an increasing number of people who are seeking asylum, many at the Texas/Mexico border.

However, immigrants’ rights groups here say the decision could have a dramatic impact on existing asylum cases, adding further instability to a population that has endured significant hardship and possibly preventing some from getting work.

Phillip Mantis, legal director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said the two East Coast offices have a combined backlog of 40,000 cases already and this will only add to that. In some cases, the wait time for cases is up to five years.

“This exacerbates an existing problem,” he said. “I think the psychological effect on people who don’t know how their case will proceed is that they don’t feel rooted anywhere.”

The shift in staff does not affect the nearly 450 people who arrived in Maine this summer and have settled in several Greater Portland communities. Those individuals sought asylum directly at the border and their cases are now in the immigration court system, which is separate from people who seek asylum directly at asylum offices.

The reassigned staff from the Northeast offices will be assisting with those same initial border interviews, known as “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” interviews. If asylum seekers demonstrate either, their cases enter the system.

ILAP learned about the change this week from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which was notified by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. An email sent last week from Susan Raufer, director of the Newark Asylum Office, and Meghann Boyle, director of the Boston Asylum Sub-Office, said no new asylum interviews will be scheduled in the Boston office.

“We are disappointed not to be able to continue to cut into our backlog or to adjudicate affirmative cases. We appreciate your understanding,” the email said.

No timeline was given for how long those two offices would be short-staffed.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, criticized the Trump administration for retreating from “America’s standing as a safe haven for those fleeing unimaginable violence and oppression.”

“Hundreds of asylum seekers in Maine have been in administrative limbo for years due to an under-resourced and confusing immigration system,” she said in a statement. “If the Boston Asylum office of USCIS has fewer adjudicators, local asylum seekers who’ve followed the rules and lived years with uncertainty about their future may wait even longer for a legal pathway to citizenship.”

Mantis said that uncertainty is the opposite of what asylum seekers are looking for.

Delays in processing also can affect the ability of asylum seekers to legally work. Currently, they must wait 150 days before even applying for a federal work permit plus a minimum of 30 more days for the approval process. But many immigrants end up waiting longer because the 150-day “clock” can stop for a variety of reasons.

Several lawmakers, including Pingree and Sen. Angus King of Maine, have pushed legislation that would shrink the waiting period to 30 days. Pingree recently re-introduced a bill that would allow asylum seekers to begin looking for work much sooner. So far, it has no Republican sponsors.

Mantis said that even though staff has been reassigned temporarily, the Boston office of Citizenship and Immigration Services would still be able to maintain cases from the “expedited” and “short-notice,” lists, although at a diminished rate.

Cases are expedited for urgent humanitarian reasons, such as if there is a family member abroad who might be in danger. The short-notice list is akin to standby. Asylum seekers will get called in if there is a sudden interview opening caused by a cancellation or something else.

Mantis said the halt on new interviews will affect people already in the U.S. who have yet to formally seek asylum. This usually means people who came on some type of temporary visa and want to avoid returning to their country for safety reasons.

But he said the hundreds of asylum seekers in Maine whose cases are pending in immigration courts are in a similar position

Trump last month sought to end all asylum protections for most migrants who arrive at the U.S-Mexico border, reversing decades of U.S. policy, but that initiative has faced legal challenges.

His hardline immigration policies have dominated his presidency and are likely to feature prominently in his reelection campaign.

Mantis said under the Trump administration, far more resources have been put into immigration enforcement than the immigration court system, leading to the delays. He also said that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is funded almost entirely through fees, which means it can’t ask Congress for more money. And asylum cases don’t generate any revenue.

Pingree, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is among those who voted for a recent Homeland Security Appropriations bill that would direct an increase of $45 million to the USCIS Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate – the division that handles asylum cases. That bill has not been voted on by the full House or Senate.

Mantis said the practical impact on asylum seekers who can’t get their case heard is real. He said some might migrate to Canada, where the process is a little less cumbersome. Many more will become less engaged with their claim and risk running afoul of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, as opposed to presenting themselves directly to officials for asylum.

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