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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden administration has admitted 1 million migrants to await hearings

Immigrants from Angola attend an English class at the Muddy Rudder, a restaurant in Yarmouth, Maine, June 28, 2022.

By Eileen Sullivan

At a modest hotel a few miles from the ocean here, most of the rooms have been occupied this summer by families from African countries seeking asylum — 192 adults and 119 children in all.

They are among the more than 1 million undocumented immigrants who have been allowed into the country temporarily after crossing the border during President Joe Biden’s tenure, part of a record-breaking cascade of irregular migration around the world.

Distinct from the hundreds of thousands who have entered the country undetected during Biden’s term, many of the 1 million are hoping for asylum — a long shot — and will have to wait seven years on average before a decision on their case is reached because of the nation’s clogged immigration system.

The hotel here is among a handful in the region, in addition to Portland’s family shelter, that are offering temporary housing for hundreds of new immigrants. Maine is unusual in that it allows asylum-seekers to receive financial support for rent and other expenses, in part through its General Assistance program. But the challenge has been steep; in May, officials in Portland announced that the city could no longer guarantee shelter for newly arrived asylum-seekers because emergency housing was at capacity.

“The community is growing so big that the word is traveling that we are helping,” said Mike Guthrie, director of Portland’s family shelter. “So more people are coming.”

Although immigration is among the country’s most hotly debated political issues, the focus is almost always on the surging numbers of people seeking to cross the Southwest border. Less attention has been paid to what happens to those who get released from government custody to lawfully await immigration court hearings and who end up scattered around the country. Some disappear into the shadows, never showing up for their court dates or required check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others struggle to comply with reporting requirements in a system that is ever more overloaded and unorganized.

Their presence is both a humanitarian challenge and a political flashpoint for a divided country that has failed for decades to agree on who should be admitted, and for what reasons. It takes about a year before the federal government grants asylum-seekers permission to work, and there is no designated funding to help support them in the meantime, as there is for refugees. But as the debate rages with little progress toward new laws, these immigrants are integrating into American communities big and small, sending their children to public schools and eventually paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

The million who have been allowed in since Biden took office — a figure that comes from internal Department of Homeland Security data and court filings — are from more than 150 countries around the globe. With few pathways to enter the United States legally, crossing the border illegally is often the only option for those fleeing crime and economic despair.

Under a pandemic-driven public health rule, migrants have been turned away at the U.S. border 1.7 million times since Biden took office, a figure that includes some people who have attempted to cross multiple times. But the United States has allowed others to stay temporarily for a range of reasons, including because Mexico or their own countries will not take them back. Nearly 300,000 of those who have been allowed in — including many heads of families — have been outfitted with tracking devices so that ICE can keep tabs on their whereabouts while they await their day in court.

“While the immigration system is badly broken, DHS is managing it responsibly, safely and humanely, and ensuring legal pathways are available for those who truly need them,” DHS spokesperson Luis Miranda said in a statement.

Republicans have rallied around the message that the Biden administration is to blame for the record number of border crossers — although more than 1 million were similarly allowed into the country on a temporary basis over a two-year stretch of the Trump administration, according to data analyzed by the Migrant Policy Institute. They see the migrants who surrender to Border Patrol agents as a burden on society, costing the government millions of dollars to apprehend and process and wasting precious law enforcement resources.

But it is not just conservatives who are upset about the situation. There has long been consensus across parties that Congress needs to update the nation’s immigration laws to face the current challenge.

Biden’s detractors say that his welcoming message to immigrants during his campaign amounted to an invitation to cross illegally; even his own Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, suggested as much when he was interviewed recently as part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Florida. The Biden administration has repeatedly warned migrants not to make the dangerous and expensive journey to the border.

With no federal assistance once they are released, it falls to local communities and states to help the new immigrants get to where they are going and keep them from living on the streets. And lately, that challenge has grown.

To try to get the Biden administration’s attention, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, have sent thousands of newly arrived migrants on buses to Washington, D.C., in recent months. Abbott has also sent buses to New York City, where officials say the shelter system now temporarily houses 5,700 asylum-seekers. Both cities were not prepared to assist so many people, and officials and volunteers have been scrambling to help shelter them and get them to their desired destinations. Abbott recently started busing migrants to Chicago, too.

Many businesses have supported the idea, promoted by Democrats, of putting millions of immigrants already living in the country illegally on the path to legal residency and participation in the workforce.

Currently, immigrants who are admitted to await removal proceedings can apply for permission to work 150 days after filing an application for asylum, a delay that many businesses — particularly during a labor shortage — find frustrating. Most migrants who do not already have a sponsor in the country have to rely on whatever public assistance is available.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced a bill in February that would shorten the statutory requirement for how long an asylum-seeker has to wait before applying for work authorization. There has been no action on the bill since it was introduced.

Currently, it takes between five and seven years for asylum cases to be decided. If an application is denied, there are opportunities to appeal, adding more years to an immigrant’s time in the country.

Maria Zombo, an Angolan asylum-seeker and mother of six who lives outside Portland, recently opened an African grocery store in the revitalized downtown of Biddeford. She came to the country on a tourist visa eight years ago and has yet to receive an initial response to her application for asylum. She has started a business, purchased a home and had a child.

Her experience is not atypical, said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a nonprofit.

“People are having their entire life here happen before they get an answer,” Cruz said.

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