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November 14, 2016

Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project helps new Mainers navigate complex laws

Photo / Tim Greenway Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, whose roster of nine staffers and 140 volunteer attorneys represent 400 clients a year.
Photo / Tim Greenway Michael Murray, an immigration attorney with FordMurray, at his Portland office.

Five years ago, a doctor traveled from his home country to Maine because his life was in danger.

His government wanted him dead because he had treated some patients who opposed the government.

“His country's government has a poor human rights record, so it was believable they would harm him,” says Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland.

After their lives were threatened, the doctor and his family went into hiding; the doctor fled the country. He was able to travel on a temporary visitor visa he had obtained for a conference he was invited to attend in the United States. In Maine, he found himself homeless. His visitor's visa expired after six months and, in any case, didn't allow him to work. He didn't know how to apply for asylum and couldn't afford a lawyer.

At church, he met an American who helped him apply for asylum from the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Later, after he discovered the application had translation errors, an ILAP staff attorney helped correct the mistakes and represented him at his interview.

“Your entire case can be denied if there's one mistake,” says Roche. “We helped him supplement and correct the application, get the case approved, and get his family to join him … Now he's been here about five years. And there are so many people we see in our office who have that same drive and desire to give back.”

Solving complex asylum issues

The doctor's arrival in Maine was part of an increase in Maine's foreign-born population — 20% between 2000 and 2010, according to census data, says Roche. That increase was reflected in ILAP's client numbers, from fewer than 1,000 annually early on, to around 2,000 today, with many more complex cases such as asylum applications.

“Many of those are people who have professional backgrounds and are coming from central Africa — doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers — many with college degrees and sometimes English language skills,” says Roche.

Why do they come to Maine?

“We don't ask, but sometimes they volunteer the information,” says Roche. “Sometimes it's word-of-mouth. People from Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Djibouti are now in this area, and people fleeing those countries hear the friend of an uncle lives in Portland, so they want to live in a community they'll identify with and with other people who speak their language.”

Every immigrant has her own reason for moving. Like the doctor, some flee danger as a group or an individual and seek asylum, a complex process. Others seek to join family. Some come for a better life.

ILAP doesn't have the capacity to help everyone.

“We give priority to clients in danger of persecution, trafficking or domestic violence, and to unaccompanied minors,” says Roche. “But there are many more cases we have to triage. We try to direct our limited resources to help clients who are the most vulnerable and where legal representation would have greatest impact.”

Without legal status, would-be immigrants find it difficult to function.

“They can't get a driver's license or a state ID or a social security number,” says Roche. “They can't qualify for benefits or any other services. That puts people in a vulnerable place. They can't integrate into the economy and can't support their families.”

To be granted asylum, applicants must prove a well-founded fear of being persecuted, prove identity, provide detailed statements and corroborating evidence, and must prove the reason they are in danger of persecution is because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.

“That's where it's difficult,” says Roche. “People don't come with a letter from their persecutor saying they're being persecuted. Sometimes they can use expert witnesses who know this particular group is being targeted, or maybe a statement from family back home. But it can be dangerous.”

If someone applies for legal status based on a family relationship — for example, marriage — they must document not only the marriage but also prove they married for love and not just for legal status, and prove they can support themselves once they get residency, or that someone will support them. They'll need to document past addresses, jobs, information about parents and more.

“Sometimes it's information people don't have,” Roche says. “If they're fleeing from a war-torn country, they don't necessarily have their birth certificate.”

Why immigrants matter to Maine

Immigration law is extremely complicated, difficult for even the best-educated immigrants to navigate, says Roche.

“That's why we're here,” she says. “It's one of the most complicated areas of the law, and it involves some of the most vulnerable people. It's not like criminal law, where you have a right to have the government provide you with an attorney. In immigration law, people might be deported without ever talking to a lawyer and without understanding their rights or why they are being deported.”

It's worthwhile to help. Maine's growing immigrant population represents huge potential for strengthening the state's economic future and meeting growing demand for labor as the existing workforce ages and retires, according to a March 2016 report by Coastal Enterprises Inc., “Building Maine's Economy: How Maine Can Embrace Immigrants and Strengthen the Workforce.”

With unemployment under 4%, immigrants “represent a growing and younger segment of Maine's population and a critical source of talent and labor needed to replace Maine's retiring workforce,” the report says. “They will also grow Maine's economy through tax-base expansion, increased demand for goods, and business creation.”

One business owner's quest for workers

Michael Lyons, co-owner of Rogue Industries in Standish, attests to the benefits of an immigrant workforce. He has offered support to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in the past.

Rogue Industries does light manufacturing of leather goods and radio frequency identification-blocking sleeves for credit cards and passports. The small company has a staff of eight, but hires as needed for specific projects. In 2014, when business took off, the company hired eight immigrants for a six-month commitment. Most were from Rwanda and Burundi; most left home because of concerns over personal safety. One was an attorney, another previously worked with the United Nations.

“So we had a huge variety of skill levels represented in this group,” says Lyons. “One thing I found interesting was most of them could speak four or five languages, yet oftentimes here, people would meet them and mistakenly think, 'These people aren't that bright because they don't speak English very well.'”

Lyons says he was impressed by their drive to succeed. Rogue Industries worked two shifts at the time. The immigrants lived in Portland and most didn't have vehicles, so Lyons provided transportation.

“Some would work at a different factory during the day, then we'd pick them up, bring them here, and they worked an additional four to six hours. A lot of people think, 'They're here for the benefits.' But these people were proud of the fact that they were working and paying taxes. They were looking for an opportunity. They were not looking for a handout.”

Most had been in Maine less than a year and were in the process of seeking citizenship. All had green card authorizations.

Legal challenges of hiring were not onerous, says Lyons.

“You have to make sure they're here legally and have the proper documentation,” he says, adding the biggest challenge is language. That proved easy to overcome by creating visual assembly templates.

Lyons has stayed in touch with most: one is at school, another works the oil fields, others haven't been able to find work. None has yet achieved citizenship.

“It's a long complicated process, and it takes time,” says Lyons.

Immigration is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and its immigration services, and the departments of Labor and State. The immigrant's legal hurdles are one side of the equation. The other side is hurdles faced by U.S. businesses seeking to bring in foreign nationals for specific workforce needs.

Companies typically look for foreign nationals only when they can't find people they need in the United States, says Michael Murray, founding partner at FordMurray in Portland, which specializes in helping employers with immigration needs, which often comes down to filling out forms.

“I'd call it a complex miasma of different forms and bureaucratic hurdles, legal standards you need to meet and different government agencies you need to get approval from,” Murray says.

FordMurray represents universities, hospitals and businesses across the country seeking to hire engineers, doctors and other specialists.

“The conundrum for a lot of employers is to find talented workers to fit certain types of jobs, like engineers or specialist doctors,” says Murray. “Many times, they can't find U.S. workers to fill the open position, so they use work visas, like the H-1B program, to bring in foreign nationals.”

Challenges include the federal government's caps on work visas.

“A couple of my clients have run into that roadblock. They've identified a talented person, offered the job, but can't bring them onto the payroll because the visa numbers have run out,” Murray says. “So either the work goes undone or the company doesn't grow in the way they could.”

Read more

Maine’s labor force gets boost from immigrants, but what’s next?

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