Small World: Legal non-citizens or fellow humans?


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Governor LePage has recently informed Maine cities that they would no longer be reimbursed by the state for General Assistance (GA) payments made to “legal noncitizens.” If you are one of those unfortunate targets of the governor’s penny-pinching exercise, I wish you would call me to explain your place in the maze of rules that controls your presence in this country.

If you are not one, get a tight grip on this paper as I try to walk you through the bureaucratic jungle of regulations.

First of all, we are not talking about illegal noncitizens. Those are the folks who cross our borders without any documentation or who come here with a proper visa but overstay the time allotted them. No, our subjects are those foreigners who entered this country with the proper visa or other authorization and fall into two categories — refugees or asylum seekers.

Typically, refugees come from war-torn countries (Somalia, Syria) and are interviewed by an immigration officer overseas, found to meet the criteria and sent to the United States.

Asylum seekers are those who make it to this country — perhaps with a temporary (“tourist”) visa — and claim that they cannot return to their country of origin for fear of persecution or harsh treatment. The international rule is that those seeking asylum must apply to the first country they land in after leaving home. Thus, a family fleeing Syria would be obliged to seek asylum in Turkey or Jordan or wherever they first touch non-Syrian soil. But sometimes things work differently and the Syrians might make it to the American embassy where they might be interviewed and classified as an asylum seeker by a U.S. Immigration officer and shipped off to the United States.

What happens in the United States? Our country takes in maybe 70,000 refugees each year. They are then farmed out to contractors around the country. Catholic Relief in Maine annually takes on 350 persons, largely from rough areas of Africa. Using federal money, the agency provides settling in services, e.g., housing, food, and medicine, training for work, etc. for ninety days. After that period they are on their own, except if they don’t have an income they may apply for GA, which until now has come in good part out of state coffers.

Asylum seekers receive more individualized treatment. Their claim for asylum must to heard by a judge. In the meantime, they are not approved for residency and cannot work until they are granted work authorization by the U.S. Immigration Service. Hence, they immediately seek GA. Waiting for approval to work can take over six months. The number of asylum seekers in Maine is surely smaller than the number of active and past refugees. The press tells us 900 people are asylum seekers.

That’s the bare bones framework of this enterprise. Behind the rules and regulations is the big question: Why should Maine or the United States take in these displaced people? Take your pick from several arguments:

  • They are fellow humans on this planet and need the help of those of us who are better off;
  • They are the victims of strife that our country had a role in starting. Think Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam. A pretty long list of troubles for which we are at least partially responsible;
  • Many of us are descendants of immigrants who were welcomed on these shores by communities established earlier;
  • Maine is an aging state and needs a work force of younger, hard working and ambitious newcomers;
  • A diverse population enriches the lives of established residents;
  • Maine’s noncitizen population is tiny compared to other states.

By cutting off GA, it may be the goal of the governor to encourage refugees or asylum seekers to move on to a more generous state. That seems unworthy, if true.

Although it’s not one of my answers to why, we should beware that Maine’s reputation for welcoming hospitality will suffer grievous harm if it does not join with the rest of the country in sharing this responsibility — and opportunity.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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