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When work permits arrive, asylum seekers in Maine face varying paths toward economic independence

The Antonio family, from left: Aicha, Ludovina, Leonel, Abraão, and Stan, at their home in West Gardiner. Abraão says purchasing a home in the U.S. was a big step in feeling more rooted here.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
The Antonio family, from left: Aicha, Ludovina, Leonel, Abraão, and Stan, at their home in West Gardiner. Abraão says purchasing a home in the U.S. was a big step in feeling more rooted here.

Thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in Maine over the last several years, and efforts to assist them have come under fire from critics, including some Republicans at the statehouse, who say that help should first be directed at citizens. But Democrats, immigration advocates, and some business groups say immigrant communities are key to meeting the state's workforce needs. As the political debate swirls around them, asylum seekers are filing for work permits, and transitioning off public assistance with varying degrees of success.

Abraão Antonio has an electronic turntable setup in his garage in West Gardiner. As an amateur DJ, he spins a lot of classics from his home country of Angola.

"Music that usually brings us some feelings," he said, over a soft guitar line and crooning Portuguese lyrics playing through a large speaker. "We feel like, at home. Because it used to be the music we used to hear with the parents around, the family around."

Back in Angola, Antonio was a project manager at an oil company. He owned multiple properties in the capital city Luanda and took his family on international vacations.

But in 2018, Antonio said his efforts to expose public sector corruption drew the ire of the government, and he said things got bad enough that he feared for his life and the safety of his family.

On short notice, they flew to Boston – the cheapest ticket they could find to the U.S. – then came to Maine, without much of a plan.

"You don't prepare [to] run for your life," he said. "You see the danger and you start to run."

Antonio said when the family arrived Portland in the summer of 2018, they slept in shelters and churches.

"It's hard when you as a parent, you look at your children, and when they ask you things that you can't answer," he said. "They tell you they are hungry, but you can’t buy even candy for them."

The Antonios eventually found an apartment, and relied on General Assistance for about a year as they prepared and filed their asylum claim. Under federal law, they had to wait six months to get work permits.

Two weeks after the permits arrived, Antonio said he landed a job working nights at a manufacturing company.

"Oh, my goodness," Antonio remembers thinking at the time. "I can work, and I can have the freedom to provide for my family."

Antonio now works as a project manager with the Maine Municipal Association, and his wife works at a bank. In 2021, they bought the house in West Gardiner, where they live with their three children.

While the Antonio family experienced fairly rapid upward mobility, advocates like Claude Rwaganje, with the financial literacy nonprofit ProsperityME, say it's hard to get a broad sense of how asylum seekers are doing in their economic trajectory, because data is siloed between different organizations and agencies.

"So we don't get the whole picture of everybody who's coming," Rwaganje said.

Rwaganje said he hopes the proposed Maine Office of New Americans - if approved by the legislature - could provide more comprehensive data.

For now, Rwaganje said what is known is that when asylum seekers first get their work permits, most scramble to land any job they can find.

"At that point, people are just looking to feed their families," he said.

A recent study from Massachusetts, which is also experiencing a sharp increase in asylum seeker arrivals, found that new immigrants in that state can expect to make roughly $24,000 per year when the first start working, and that earnings tend to increase steadily.

Rwaganje said it’s usually about five years before asylum seekers reach a level of economic stability where they can afford market rate apartments, start businesses, and, in some cases, buy homes.

But the path toward economic stability can be rocky, especially if language is a barrier.

"One of the biggest factors really is English language proficiency," said Kate Fahey, with the Peer Workforce Navigator Project, which helps jobseekers – including many immigrants – connect with employers, build resumes, and find training opportunities.

Fahey said many new immigrants with limited English skills find jobs in manufacturing, often through temp agencies. And while the high hourly rates can be attractive, she said, many of those jobs lack stability.

"The roller coaster is so real, and is a roller coaster that we've seen some people be on, you know, three times," Fahey said, "Laid off three different times over the course of three years."

Bemvindo Carlos, originally from of Angola, has been on his own employment roller coaster since his work permit arrived last summer.

He got a job in Brunswick at a restaurant, but it closed suddenly in December. He’s applied for numerous jobs since then, but said he's been turned away from some for not having an American high school diploma.

"This has happened three times," he said, in Portuguese, "they’re requiring American diplomas. But I haven’t studied here."

Carlos said he would like to get training to become an electrician or a plumber. But
it's hard, he said, because if he takes time away from work for a job training program, how will he pay rent?

In West Gardiner, meanwhile, Abraão Antonio said he feels more rooted in Maine since purchasing a home here.

"Having a space to call my own is a way to make yourself [feel] part of the community, part of the country," he said.

But, he added, the family is still living in a state of limbo – waiting for a final decision on their asylum claim.

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