Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said Monday that the flow of African asylum seekers coming to Maine’s largest city appears to be slowing and city officials are turning their attention to finding temporary and permanent housing for the more than 200 people now sheltered at the Portland Expo.
Jennings said only four people presented themselves at the Expo on Monday, bringing the total number since June 9 to 223 people. He said 60 families, totaling 212 people, stayed at the shelter Sunday night. Dozens of people were showing up each day last week, prompting the city to convert the sports arena into an emergency shelter Wednesday.
“The efforts at the Expo have become stabilized,” Jennings said, while cautioning that officials really don’t know how many more people could end up coming to Portland or how long they plan to stay. “We are already starting to talk about phase two and (that) is really moving folks out of the Expo and into temporary or permanent housing.”
The City Council was scheduled to vote on a policy for the Community Support Fund. But, after an hourlong public hearing encouraging them to continue to provide aid and work with the state, councilors decided shortly before 12:30 a.m. Tuesday to delay that discussion and decision until next Monday.
Part of the reason for that delay was to see what assistance, if any, the state will provide. It remains unclear if the state will give the asylum seekers access to General Assistance vouchers for housing and basic needs.
“We can’t get ourselves out of the tangled web of which the state is a major part,” said Councilor Justin Costa, who helped created the fund four years ago.
Without sustainable assistance from the state or surrounding communities, Portland would be left to meet the basic needs of the families through its Community Support Fund, which city officials believe is the only municipally funded and administered financial aid program for noncitizens in the country.
Councilors were expected to discuss who should be eligible for the Community Support Fund on Monday night. Proposals run the gamut from providing assistance to an unlimited number of migrants to not allowing any of the new arrivals to access the fund.
Councilors are also being asked by Jennings to weigh in on whether city money should be used to house families outside Portland.
Jennings said it would cost as much as $1.3 million to support the 60 families now staying at the Expo for one year, though over the last few years, families have used the fund for only four or five months on average. He said that does not include the 124 people who are now staying at the Family Shelter.
That estimate of $1.3 million for 60 families appears to be at odds with earlier estimates provided to the council. During the budget process, the city staff estimated that an additional $50,000 would fully serve an additional 32 families.
So far, the community has stepped up to help. The city has received over $350,000 in donations to help families currently at the Expo. Jennings predicted that would likely only cover the costs already incurred with setting up the facility as a temporary shelter. And over 1,100 people have signed up to volunteer to help the city care for the new arrivals, a city spokesperson said.
City officials are worried about what comes after the outpouring of generosity from the community dries up. There is a well-documented lack of low-income and affordable housing in Portland, leaving even those with housing vouchers languishing at the city’s emergency shelter.
On Friday, Gov. Janet Mills visited Portland and toured the Expo. Mills assured city officials that the state would help the city take care of the African migrants who came to Portland via San Antonio.
“It’s not just an issue that Portland is going to deal with alone,” Mills said. “We are all in this together. It’s an issue that all surrounding communities and the state of Maine are dealing with and will be dealing with, and I urge other communities to step up to the plate and contribute their assistance, as well.”
But Jennings said no firm offers have been made, although he remains in constant contact with the administration and believes the state will follow through.
What help Portland can expect from surrounding communities is unclear.
In Westbrook on Monday night, Mayor Michael Sanphy called a special city council meeting to discuss Portland’s request for assistance. While many councilors and residents said the community should help the asylum seekers, speakers were divided on whether local tax dollars should be used. No formal proposal was presented. City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the council likely will consider taking some action at its July 1 meeting.
On Tuesday night, the South Portland City Council will consider giving $40,000 to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland to provide assistance to asylum seekers with their asylum applications. The money remains unspent in the city’s social services budget ending June 30. The council also will consider establishing a community fund for donations to assist immigrants.
The migrants are mostly fleeing violence or political persecution in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have endured a perilous monthslong journey to reach Portland. That journey usually begins with a flight to Ecuador, or some other South American country, and entails traveling thousands of miles on foot through jungles, over mountains and through rivers, often relying on human traffickers to pass from one country to another.
The travelers presented themselves at the U.S. border and are here legally, free to move around the country while they pursue asylum in immigration courts. Some of the new arrivals said they decided to come to Portland after hearing about the welcoming city from other migrants during their journeys. Others have family or friends who have settled here in the past.
Finding more permanent housing for the arrivals is clearly a big challenge for the city.
The University of Southern Maine has offered to house up to 200 people in dorms at its Gorham campus, but they could only stay until Aug. 3. Jennings said that the city would have to pay for food, security and maintenance to use the dorms.
Jennings said Bowdoin College also has offered to help. And Dana Totman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Avesta Housing, said he suggested city officials reach out to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority to see what resources, including housing, may be available at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Jennings said Monday that border agents have told the city they are not aware of any other large groups of African migrants heading toward the southern U.S. border, which means the city could see a leveling off of new arrivals. The recent influx of African migrants in Portland followed a similar increase flowing through the southern border.
In one recent week, agents in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector stopped more than 500 African migrants found walking in separate groups along the arid land after splashing across the Rio Grande, children in tow, the Associated Press reported. That is more than double the total of 211 African migrants who were detained by the Border Patrol along the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border in the 2018 fiscal year.
A few days after the big groups of African immigrants were apprehended in Texas, federal officials dropped off dozens of them in San Antonio, the AP reported.
Officials in Portland and San Antonio, where most of African migrants are stopping after they cross the border legally and before coming to Maine, have pushed back against rumors that the African migrants have ebola, saying they have found no evidence to support those claims. Staff of the Maine Center for Disease Control are onsite at the Portland Expo to address any health needs identified by the migrants, some of whom are pregnant and with young children.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram first reported in December about the increasing number of families from sub-Saharan Africa making the long and dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico to the southern U.S. border, where they ask for asylum. Many of the migrants ask to be sent to Portland after learning about the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.
The African immigrants coming to Portland are in the United States legally because they have presented themselves at a legal point of entry and declared their intent to seek asylum. These families are often released into the U.S. with a notice to appear in immigration court.
The migrants entered through the southern border and took buses from San Antonio to Portland.
In addition to accepting donations online, by phone, check or in person, the city announced a new donate-by-text option. Those interested in donating cash can do so by texting “EXPO” to 91999.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this story.