A 38-year-old asylum seeker who asked to be identified as Patrick is photographed at Portland’s Health & Human Services Department in 2022. Patrick told a Press Herald reporter that he worked for himself selling clothing in Angola, where he is from, and would like to do the same in Maine. A proposed new state office would connect the hundreds of people like Patrick with the housing and job opportunities they need. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

That’s the key word in the proposal for a new state office designed to help people who are new to Maine with housing, job opportunities and associated support and services. Coordination is what our state badly needs in this respect – and has badly needed for some time.

Just ask the 79 organizations that appealed to political leaders for something like this in May of last year. Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and one of the letter’s signatories, said it well then.

“We should stop responding like we’re in a crisis,” Chitam said. “We should normalize our response by coming up with a coordinated way of tracking and supporting people.”

The proposal for a new office, in the form of a bill sponsored by Oxford state Sen. Rick Bennett, takes Chitam’s request seriously. It also gives Maine and Mainers a valuable opportunity to reframe the present moment.

The proposal is a proactive move at a deeply reactive time.


Since Chitam and scores of others made their appeal, a sense of crisis has intensified in many quarters – most conspicuously in Portland, where the city has struggled to support adequate shelter space and repeatedly suggested it has reached a breaking point.

A subsequent letter from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to the Department of Homeland Security asked that no more asylum seekers be permitted to come to Maine without verifying Maine’s ability to offer people shelter or other assistance.

Responding, the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project sought to shift the focus back to the asylum seekers’ plight, blaming “the situation in Maine right now” on “not simply a lack of resources and capacity” but “poor federal government planning.”

Just as people of most political persuasions are in agreement that asylum seekers should not be forced to wait long periods before being permitted to work in the U.S., disagreement on that last point, regarding deficient and inefficient federal policymaking, is generally hard to find.

Underinvestment has led to pressure on the system; pressure on the system has led to President Biden arriving at a strategy that comes closer to replicating the anti-immigrant line of his immediate predecessor than it does to resembling anything like a contemporary attempt to respond to or reflect the trends and demands of 2023.

The answer to the various “situations” unfolding across America at the moment is comprehensive immigration reform. In the absence of that reform, Maine’s ability to offer people assistance deserves our close attention.


In finally coordinating this, the state, despite having considerable experience in asylum seeker and refugee resettlement, comes a little late to the party. Many cities and states already have offices and programs like Bennett’s bill envisions.

To review the official language used at the time of these offices’ establishment is to be reminded of the strong rationale for a confident approach that zeroes in on social, cultural and economic potential.

In New York state, for example, the city of Buffalo’s Office of New Americans is said to have been founded to “ensure that Buffalo remains a welcoming city and a preferred resettlement site in the United States.”

In Baltimore, with a view to that city’s ability “to retain and attract immigrants as part of the mayor’s goal to grow Baltimore.” In Pittsburgh, the move is “rooted in a commitment to ensure a more livable city for all residents.

Colorado’s Office of New Americans, created last spring, part of “a statewide strategy to facilitate economic stability and promote successful economic, social, linguistic and cultural integration by investing in the success of immigrants.”

The proposed Maine program is visualized within the Department of Economic and Community Development “as a centralized resource to coordinate municipal efforts to connect persons who have recently moved to the State with housing and job opportunities.”

If Maine’s congressional delegation succeeds in securing a federal waiver on asylum seeker work authorization, this initiative will put the state in a better position to capitalize on that change.

The enthusiastic establishment of this new office can, on top of what it expressly undertakes to do, guide Maine through a significant shift in mindset.

It stands to lift our communities out of disagreement and fragmented crisis-type response and in the direction, together, of a strategy focused on shared opportunity, prosperity and the future.

Comments are no longer available on this story