A nonprofit shelter in Texas recently informed city officials that it was buying bus tickets to Portland for some asylum seekers who entered the U.S. at the Mexican border.

“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer Long, executive director of La Casa Marianella in Austin, Texas, wrote to a Portland official in an email about the bus tickets. “We are in such a serious crisis at Casa that I had to call the mayor for backup.”

While Long’s email said the Texas shelter bought bus tickets for three families to come to Portland, nearly 50 people seeking asylum arrived in Maine’s largest city seeking shelter in the three weeks that followed. City officials have said the arrivals are further straining a shelter system that is already overcrowded, in part because of immigrants arriving through the southern U.S. border and seeking to make their way to Portland.

The latest wave of arrivals comes as Portland is debating whether to continue a support program for immigrants that has added to its reputation as a welcoming community.

Last year, Portland officials warned that its family shelter was reaching a crisis level, in part because of an influx of families from African countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo who have applied for asylum and are prohibited from working. The city shelter can hold about 146 people. Another 35 floor mats can be set up at the shelter and an additional 80 floor mats can be set up at the Salvation Army gym to accommodate overflow.

The Maine Sunday Telegram reported on the increasing numbers of sub-Saharan African families making the long and dangerous journey through Central America to the southern border. At the time, Long told the paper that many families staying at the Texas shelter were asking to come to Portland because of the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.


Long wrote in an April 19 email to the city that she had 50 people in overflow at the shelter built for only 38 people. She said people were sleeping in living rooms and classrooms, there wasn’t enough space for new arrivals, and she felt compelled to buy the bus tickets to Portland.

Like those who flowed to Portland last year, the recent arrivals also are families who left sub-Saharan Africa before traveling through Latin America to reach the southern border, according to the city. They applied for political asylum and are legal residents of the U.S. while authorities assess claims that the families face violence or persecution in their homelands, a process that typically takes years. Asylum applicants are not allowed to work for at least six months after filing, but also do not qualify for the same federal assistance that supports people who come to the U.S. as official refugees.

Long was not available to comment Friday about the situation in Texas. It’s unclear which mayor she was referring to in the email as the person she called for help. The shelter is based in Austin, Texas, but a spokesperson for Austin’s mayor said they were not involved in any relocation efforts.

Portland’s policy of supporting asylum seekers has sparked mixed reactions. It became the target of conservative critics after The Wall Street Journal picked up on the story, but was defended by Mayor Ethan Strimling and others.

While critics often point to the cost of immigration and the burden on social services when people arrive without incomes or resources, a report commissioned by Portland’s Office of Economic Opportunity and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce came to a different conclusion about the long-term impacts.

That report said immigrants contributed $1.2 billion to the Greater Portland metro region’s gross domestic product, paid $133 million in federal taxes and $62 million in state taxes; contributed $57.3 million to Social Security and $14.7 million to Medicare; and helped create or preserve over 1,100 local manufacturing jobs.


City officials have said that supporting the increased number of asylum seekers until they become self-sufficient continues to stretch city resources, and that tension played out publicly during a city meeting last Thursday.

Portland Human Resources Director Gina Tapp spoke up at a budget-setting meeting to criticize Strimling, who has said Portland welcomes new Americans such as those arriving at the southern border.

“I’m feeling like I need to speak up for my staff, who are so well-meaning and trying to do the best they can,” Tapp said of recent comments by the mayor. “When you say ‘bring them on,’ it’s bringing them to a place that is overcrowded and they’re on mats. You’re putting them in a terrible position. Please think about what you’re asking of our staff.”

Strimling was clearly taken aback, calling it a “curious exchange.” He said he was voicing what he believes is the will of the people.

“I believe the people of this city want us to welcome immigrants without question,” Strimling replied.

In March, 23 families, totaling 71 people, arrived at the family shelter, the city said Friday, with 18 families coming from the southern U.S. border. In April, another 20 families, totaling 71 people, arrived in Portland, among them 13 families from the southern border.


Thirteen families, totaling 49 people, were sleeping on floor mats at the Salvation Army gym, which is used when the shelter reaches it’s 146-person capacity, the city said.

City Manager Jon Jennings said he understands the frustrations of staff members as they struggle to meet demand, but called Tapp’s comments “out-of-bounds and unacceptable.” He said he spoke to Tapp about her comments and no further disciplinary action was warranted.

“I think we’re all concerned about the volume we have to deal with,” Jennings said Friday. “I do apologize to the mayor for what was said. It is something that city staff can complain to me and voice their concerns about, but that was not appropriate for a public setting.”

The exchange comes as city councilors are discussing the future of social service programs such as the Portland Community Support Fund, which city officials and some immigrant advocates believe is the only such fund in the U.S. that provides local financial aid to some immigrants.

The fund covers asylum seekers who are ineligible for the state’s General Assistance program, which is available to immigrants with valid visas or to those who have filed an application for asylum. GA provides vouchers for housing, food, medicine and other basic needs.

City officials are hoping that Gov. Janet Mills will take action to relieve pressure within the city. They’re asking the administration to expand the GA program to cover the gap between when someone’s visa expires and when the person files an application.


A Mills spokesman did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Immigration advocates have said that asylum applications take a long time to compile. It involves filling out forms and collecting evidence to prove that an individual faces persecution in his or her home country. And even the slightest inconsistency can result in a denial and force people to return to dangerous situations.

If the Mills administration doesn’t act, Portland councilors will have to decide the future of the Community Support Fund. Councilors allocated $200,000 to the fund in the current budget. Through March, the fund was $36,000 over budget, but the city received $46,000 in private donations to continue paying rent for those already enrolled.

Jennings has proposed phasing out the program over the next two years. He noted that the program was originally designed in 2015 to provide temporary assistance to asylum seekers who expected to be kicked off General Assistance under Gov. Paul LePage.

So far, councilors have asked a lot of questions about the fund, but have to debate its future.

But some councilors, including the mayor, have made it clear that they want the city to continue providing the assistance to all newcomers.

Kristen Dow, the city’s interim director of Health and Human Services, said staff is looking to strike a balance that is acceptable to councilors and local taxpayers.

“In Health and Human Services as a whole the rule is to support our staff, who are amazingly compassionate and want to help, but also doing it in a fiscally responsible way.”

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