Schools Back Refugee Student Poet in Portland, Maine

PORTLAND, Maine (CN) — With support from public schools in Portland, Maine, a Namibian student who fled his homeland to seek asylum in the United States is fighting to represent Maine schools in a national poetry reading contest.

After winning the statewide Poetry Out Loud contest, Allan Monga on Wednesday asked a federal court to allow him to participate in the poetry competition, which allows only citizens and permanent legal immigrants. That distinction excludes Monga, who came to Portland in 2017.

Portland Public Schools joined Monga as a plaintiff, against the National Endowment for the Arts, its Chairwoman Jane Chu and the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. They are represented by Melissa Hewey with Drummond Woodsum.

Seeking political asylum can be a lengthy process, often taking years. Once the political asylum application, known as an I-589, has been submitted, the asylum-seeker is legally in the country, awaiting adjudication.

Monga has applied for asylum, and obtained an employment authorization card that is valid until 2020 and a Social Security number, but he cannot begin the process of applying for permanent residency until his asylee status is approved.

“As a result of the defendants’ enforcement of the POL (Poetry Out Loud) eligibility rule against Allan, Allan faces the prospect of not being able to compete in the national championship to exhibit his creative talents alongside other state champions,” the complaint states.

“In the meantime, [he] has been declined access to a local poet to coach him in preparation for the national competition like other state champions, and prevented from securing travel or accommodations for the national competition like other state champions.”

Monga and the Portland Public Schools say the National Endowment of the Arts’ exclusion rule violates equal-protection guarantees of the Fifth and 14th Amendments, by specifying that only specific types of legal residents can participate.

The eligibility rules were not a surprise to Monga, who along with his school, Deering High, urged Maine’s state-level competition to waive the rules. The state allowed him to compete, as it had done previously.

In theory, a win at the state level brings the performer a $200 prize and free trip to Washington, D.C., with an adult chaperone, for the national competition, from April 23 to 25. The school that the state winner represents also receives a $500 stipend to buy poetry books.

A win at the national level would bring $2,000 to Monga.

Portland Public Schools are backing Monga in part because of its immigrant population.

“A significant percentage of the students who attend school in the Portland Public Schools are immigrants without permanent resident status and the Portland Public Schools has an interest in ensuring that all of its students, including its immigrant population, are all treated fairly and are not discriminated against in the provision of educational opportunities,” the complaint states.

The National Endowment for the Arts did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Monga and his school seek an injunction and “reasonable attorneys’ fees.”

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