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Immigrant communities in Maine react to Biden's executive actions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden's new executive actions, which severely limit asylum claims at the Southern border are reverberating across the country, as far north as Maine. Immigrant communities there are reacting to the new border rules with a mix of confusion, anxiety and some disappointment. Maine Public's Ari Snider has our story.

ARI SNIDER, BYLINE: On a late spring day, Bemvindo Muandumba is standing on a street corner in downtown Portland as a construction crew works on a sidewalk nearby. Muandumba, originally from Angola, says he fled violence a couple years ago, arriving first in Brazil before making the overland journey across much of South and Central America to claim asylum at the U.S. Southern border. He arrived in Maine about 10 months ago. When the new border policy was announced, he says anxiety spread rapidly through immigrant communities.

BEMVINDO MUANDUMBA: (Through interpreter) They feel afraid. They're saying they are not going to accept any more immigrants here.

SNIDER: In fact, the U.S. is still accepting more immigrants. The White House's new border rule would impose broad restrictions on asylum when unauthorized border crossings top an average of 2,500 per day. But there's confusion and uncertainty in immigrant communities, including here in Maine - home to thousands of asylum-seekers from Angola, Congo and elsewhere, many of whom arrived in the state after claiming asylum at the Southern border. Keyko Torres with Presente! Maine, a group that works with Latin American immigrants here, says many are unsure how exactly the new policy will impact them.

KEYKO TORRES: There's a lot of lack of awareness, and then lack of understanding. Well, what does this mean for me and for my family?

SNIDER: The rule change does not impact those already living in the country with a pending court date to petition asylum. But Torres says many of the families she works with have relatives or friends planning to come to the U.S. Torres says new arrivals struggle to get on their feet in the Portland area, where housing is expensive and in short supply.

Other cities across the country are also grappling with how to house and support growing numbers of asylum-seekers. Rather than trying to stem immigration, Torres says immigrants and host cities would be better served by increased funding to address the backlog of asylum court cases. She says the asylum process simply takes too long. Another fix she'd like to see asylum-seekers getting work permits sooner rather than waiting for months.

TORRES: That makes them very dependent on community resources, and folks don't want to be a public charge.

SNIDER: Many Maine industries rely heavily on immigrant labor, especially seafood processing, agriculture and home health care. Maxwell Chikuta runs a small grocery store and a company that provides in-home help for elderly and disabled Mainers. He says the vast majority of people who apply to entry-level job postings with him are immigrants.

MAXWELL CHIKUTA: Who's going to provide that gap? Who's going to fill that gap? It's not Biden.

SNIDER: Chikuta is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to the U.S. about 20 years ago seeking asylum. His case was approved, and he's now a U.S. citizen. Chikuta says the pathways for legal immigration desperately need to be fixed. He's still waiting on a family reunification petition he filed in 2012 to bring his sister to the U.S. - a wait that pushes some people to enter the country and stay without authorization.

CHIKUTA: Twelve years - I'm still waiting for them to respond for my sister to come here. And this is a legal way to do it.

SNIDER: He says he can understand why some people choose not to wait for the lengthy legal pathways. Some migrants here view the Biden administration's policy change as simply an election year move. Paulo Nanque is an asylum-seeker from the West African country of Guinea-Bissau. He arrived in Portland a little over a year ago after claiming asylum at the Southern border.

PAULO NANQUE: (Through interpreter) We thought the Democrats are more in favor of immigration. Now, taking this decision, we think it's because of the election.

SNIDER: As immigrant communities in Maine and across the country try to make sense of the new rules, the fate of the policy itself is uncertain. Several immigration and legal advocacy groups filed suit to block it, arguing that immigrants have the right to request asylum, no matter how they cross into the country. For NPR News, I'm Ari Snider in Portland, Maine.

(SOUNDBIE OF HI-TEK SONG, "ALL I NEED IS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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