Portland city councilors directed City Manager Jon Jennings on Tuesday night to take emergency action to set up an additional shelter at the Portland Expo to accommodate more than 200 asylum seekers from the southern border who are arriving in the city.

Jennings said the city’s staff already has begun working with officials from the Red Cross and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to staff the emergency shelter. The staff also would reach out to surrounding communities and community groups for assistance in handling the unexpected and unprecedented influx.

“We are, I think, in a very critical situation in this city,” Jennings told councilors.

The Expo would be a temporary shelter, available until the Maine Red Claws begin their season in October.

As the meeting got underway, Jennings told the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee that 72 asylum seekers had arrived since Sunday and reported to the city’s Family Shelter in Bayside. By the time the 3 1/2-hour meeting concluded, that total had risen to 86.

And that does not include another 150 asylum seekers en route from San Antonio, Texas, city officials said.

The current number of families, primarily from the sub-Saharan countries of Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo, have put the shelter over its capacity, including a 75-person overflow space at the Salvation Army. Jennings said the city’s General Assistance office would likely be opened to accommodate the families.

The influx is not only putting the city’s shelter over capacity. It’s also expected to significantly impact the Portland Community Support Fund, which is believed to be the only local, municipally funded assistance program for asylum seekers in the U.S.

Asylum seekers, who are fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands, are not able to work until at least six months after they file asylum applications. As a result, they often end up in Portland’s homeless shelter and rely on state-funded General Assistance or the locally funded Portland Community Support Fund for basic necessities, such as food and medicine.

Noncitizens with an active visa or pending asylum application can receive General Assistance for up to two years. But there is often a gap between a visa expiring and an application being filed, so Portland has been using local tax dollars and donations to help those people.

City officials have been lobbying the state Department of Health and Human Services to expand General Assistance eligibility for asylum seekers, but so far no action has been taken.

“The commissioner has met with Portland city officials to discuss the delivery of social services, including General Assistance,” DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said in an email Tuesday. “Eligibility requirements of the General Assistance program remain under review.”

In the past, many families presenting themselves at the southern border would be granted “parole” after passing an initial interview with immigration agents, which would make them eligible for the General Assistance program as soon as they arrived.

But Family Shelter Program Manager Jeff Tardiff said in an email Monday that none of the nine families, totaling 39 people, who showed up on Sunday had been paroled by border agents before being allowed to proceed to Portland.

“Please note that all families who arrived yesterday are not paroled and do not appear to have any GA eligibility,” Tardiff said Monday morning in an email to Jennings and other city staff.

The support fund was created in 2015 in response to a change in the state’s General Assistance program under former Gov. Paul LePage. As of this month, the fund’s $200,000 appropriation from the council had been over-expended by $86,000, Jennings said.

The council authorized another $200,000 for the program for the fiscal year beginning July 1, but officials don’t expect that to last long.

On Monday, the full council will debate future eligibility requirements for the program. Councilors also may vote on additional funding for the program, though that vote could be taken at a later date when the fund is running low.

Councilors will likely debate a range of proposals.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting due to a personal conflict, has advocated for the city to continue providing assistance without limits. And City Councilor Kimberly Cook said Tuesday she will advocate for the city to provide assistance only to the 36 families who were denied access to benefits after the fund became over-expended in April.

City Councilor Jill Duson plans to offer a middle path. She proposed accepting applications until July 1 and then making a one-time emergency appropriation to cover the costs, which could exceed $2 million, according to social services staff.

Duson said it’s clear that the Portland cannot be the only city in the country to offer this assistance and argued Portland would still be a welcoming city to immigrants without the financial aid program.

“It’s not sustainable to have the only program in the whole darn country paid for by 67,000 people,” Duson said, referencing the city’s population. “It’s not about telling people don’t come. It’s about being clear that the nine of 10 other programs we’re committed to are still here.”

The five councilors who attended the meeting Tuesday night, including Brian Batson, Pious Ali and Belinda Ray, all agreed that Jennings should not wait to make arrangements for additional shelter space.

Jennings said the Expo building could accommodate 150 cots and had showers on site. He would work with community partners, such as the Red Cross, state officials and Preble Street, to staff the shelter and provide food to people staying there.

However, councilors urged him to reach out to other communities.

Strimling said Tuesday afternoon he had reached out to South Portland and Westbrook.

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said the council has scheduled an emergency workshop for Thursday evening to discuss ways to help.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reported in December about the increasing numbers 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, Maine, because of the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.

“We heard that Maine was a place where a lot of people have been able to get asylum,” a man named Matare told the Press Herald after arriving in Portland with his wife and four children.

The family left Angola to escape violence and completed an epic two-month, 13,100-mile journey through South and Central America, avoiding drug cartels, militias and human traffickers, walking through jungles and over mountains to get to Texas. Matare spoke on the condition that his full name wouldn’t be published because of fears for family members in Angola.

The current influx of arrivals comes a week after a CBS affiliate in San Antonio reported last week that officials were struggling to handle an influx of about 350 asylum seekers from Angola and the Congo. The station quoted an assistant city manager as saying they hoped to be able to send many of the asylum seekers to Portland.

“The plan was 350 of them would travel from San Antonio to Portland. When we reached out to Portland, Maine, they said, ‘Please don’t send us any more. We’re already stretched way beyond our capacity,” interim Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger told KENS 5.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin pushed back on the assertion that any city official discouraged San Antonio from sending people to Portland. Jennings said in his email to councilors that the city manager in San Antonio told him on Monday to expect 150 asylum seekers in the coming days.

“He said this is just the beginning as there are currently between 1,500-2,000 African migrants at the border seeking asylum with the probability of more to come,” Jennings said in his email.

Jennings said he was told by the San Antonio manager that U.S. Customs and Border Protection changed its policy on asylum seekers. As of June 4, border agents are releasing individuals to a point of destination in the U.S. without verifying a sponsor. And he said that thousands of people are “being bused to San Antonio for distribution throughout the U.S. according to the city manager.”

It’s unclear why the new arrivals do not have paroled status or if it is related to any change in federal border policy. The Trump administration has instead been working to extend detention and expand its network detention facilities as ways to release fewer asylum seekers.

In April, President Trump threatened to send immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities, a term given to communities that have policies preventing local police officers from assisting federal immigration authorities.

In response to Trump’s plan, Strimling was quoted as saying “bring them on.”

Portland is not considered a sanctuary city, but does promote itself as open and welcoming to everyone, including immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. A city ordinance says that city officials will not ask about a person’s immigration status, but it does allow local police officers to assist immigration authorities when asked.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Portland-based nonprofit Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said asylum seekers who pass an initial interview with an immigration official are considered paroled and can be released with a notice to appear in immigration court. However, individuals can simply be released with a notice to appear in court without formally being paroled.

“We have seen this in the past as well, although it is happening much more frequently now,” Roche said. “We are also seeing increased inconsistency in how (Customs and Border Protection) is handling each individual case. This does not change the fact that the person is an asylum seeker and that they are going to go through the same immigration court process in which they will submit an asylum application that will be adjudicated by an immigration judge.”

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