Maine Asylum-Seeker Fights For His Right To Poetry Allan Monga won Maine's Poetry Out Loud competition last month, but the NEA barred him from the national stage because of his immigration status. Now he's suing for his right to participate.
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Maine Asylum-Seeker Fights For His Right To Poetry

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Maine Asylum-Seeker Fights For His Right To Poetry

Maine Asylum-Seeker Fights For His Right To Poetry

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Next week, high school students from all over the country will meet in Washington, D.C., to recite poems. It's for a national competition called Poetry Out Loud. The state champion from Maine has been barred from the contest because of his immigration status. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg reports the student is fighting back.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Last summer, Allan Monga arrived in Portland, Maine, alone and seeking asylum from his home country of Zambia.

ALLAN MONGA: It was really hard for me 'cause I didn't really know anyone. And it was hard to trust anyone.

FEINBERG: He enrolled as a junior at Portland's Deering High School. There, a teacher introduced him to Poetry Out Loud. Monga started picking out poems and reciting them for teachers and friends. He says poetry gave him a way to express himself in this unfamiliar new home.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "THE SONG OF THE SMOKE")

MONGA: (Reading) I am the smoke king. I am black.

FEINBERG: That's Monga performing W.E.B. Du Bois' 1907 poem "The Song Of The Smoke" at Maine state finals last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "THE SONG OF THE SMOKE")

MONGA: (Reading) I will be black as blackness can. The blacker the mantel, the mightier the man.

When I recite that poem, I just feel like I'm in a position of authority and power. And everyone is listening.

FEINBERG: With that performance and two others, Monga won the state competition. But there was a hitch. Poetry Out Loud's official rules say competitors must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. And as an asylum seeker, Monga is still considered temporary. State organizers let him compete, but the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, who run the competition, say he's not eligible for the national finals. So Monga is fighting back. He's suing the NEA and the Poetry Foundation in federal court to be allowed to compete. Monga says it's important for him and other students with similar immigration status to be included.

MONGA: If you cannot have them partake in this competition because they don't have the proper legal status in the U.S., it's just, like, discrimination in some way.

FEINBERG: In a hearing Wednesday, Monga's lawyers argued that the NEA's rules violate federal civil rights laws. Bruce Smith, an attorney representing Monga, says the rules create a class of citizens who are being denied an educational opportunity that should be open to all residents.

BRUCE SMITH: I don't see how anybody can look at that and say that that's fair or reasonable. But not only that - it does, in our view, violate the Constitution.

FEINBERG: The NEA isn't commenting on the case. But in court, a lawyer representing the agency argued that Congress allows the NEA to decide how it uses its federal funds and who receives them. For now, Monga says he's still rehearsing as if he's headed to the national finals which start Monday. The court is expected to decide the case by tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Portland, Maine.

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