Poetry contest decision due for teen who fled native Zambia

A federal judge is expected to rule whether a high school student who fled his native Zambia can compete in a government-funded national poetry contest.

Allan Monga, a junior at Deering High School, won Maine's "Poetry Out Loud" contest . The National Endowment for the Arts is not allowing him to compete nationally next week because he hasn't yet been granted legal asylum. He and the Portland school district sued the NEA to let him participate.

A ruling is expected on Friday.

NEA lawyers cite a contest rule requiring competitors at state and national finals to be US citizens or permanent residents with a valid tax identification or Social Security number, which are needed to receive prizes.

Monga's lawyers say he faces "immediate and irreparable injury" as a result of the NEA's decision.

The NEA lawyers noted when Monga was preparing to compete in the state finals in Maine, the Maine Arts Commission contacted the NEA and was told he wasn't eligible to compete but chose to ignore it.

Monga's lawyers argue that NEA's eligibility rule discriminates against asylum-seekers and violates civil rights laws. They say it takes away his right to an education - and specifically a once in a lifetime opportunity - that should be open to anyone in the country.

Maine Democratic US Rep Chellie Pingree, who co-leads the Congressional Arts Caucus, had urged the NEA to reconsider its decision to exclude Monga on the basis of his immigration status. She said in an April 12 letter to the NEA that it was "aware" Monga had received a Social Security number, and that she wasn't aware of any statutory grounds to keep him from participating.

However, despite his having a Social Security number, the NEA maintains that Monga is ineligible because he's not a citizen or permanent resident.

It asserts Monga's lawyers incorrectly equate the status of people who have applied for asylum with those who are legal permanent residents and argues that allowing him to compete wouldn't be fair to students across the country whose immigration status does not qualify them to compete in their state's competition.

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