Portland officials have set up an emergency operations center and begun securing resources such as cots, linens, food, health-care providers and translators as the city prepares to house more than 250 asylum seekers from Africa who crossed the southern border into the United States.

City Manager Jon Jennings said that since Sunday the city has received nearly 100 asylum seekers, most of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in the sub-Saharan countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An additional 150 or so asylum seekers have boarded buses in recent days in San Antonio headed for Portland, he said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Metro buses displaying “Not In Service” signs rolled up to the Portland Expo and delivered scores of migrants to their temporary shelter. Children dangling stuffed animals and parents pushing strollers filed into the arena and claimed cots prepared for them by the city.

Jennings said city officials were told during a conference call Wednesday with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the Maine Emergency Management Association that there are more than 700 African immigrants who have crossed the border and are en route to various destinations, and that Portland should expect more asylum seekers.

“We are in a very critical emergency situation,” Jennings said.

The city has made it known that it will need help to deal with the influx of asylum seekers and on Wednesday afternoon Glenn Cummings, president of the University of Southern Maine, said he’s willing to open up a roughly 200-bed dormitory in Gorham to asylum seekers through Aug. 7.

Cummings said no university funds would be used. He speculated that food could possibly be offered at a “good price” by their food service provider, with the state hopefully helping to pick up the tab.

“I think they’d be appreciative of what we’re trying to do,” Cummings said, referring to the food provider. “We want to be part of the solution and we want to help.”

Jennings said he was informed Monday of the incoming asylum seekers by the city manager of San Antonio, which currently has as many as 2,000 asylum seekers waiting to be sent on to other destinations in the United States. A group of five city councilors on Tuesday night directed Jennings to use the Portland Expo, the home of the Maine Red Claws minor league basketball team, as a temporary shelter.

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, Maine, after learning about the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.

A woman sits in the aisle of a Metro bus with her baby daughter cradled on her back during a bus ride Wednesday from Portland’s Family Shelter to the Portland Expo. Three buses delivered more than 140 asylum seekers. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Most, if not all, of 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.

Asylum seekers are prohibited from working until at least six months after filing their asylum applications. Many end up sleeping in homeless shelters and relying on public assistance, such as General Assistance, Maine’s state-funded safety net program.

Prince Pombo Mafumba was among the most recent arrivals at the Bayside family shelter. The native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo stepped off a Greyhound bus in Portland with his family on Wednesday afternoon.

A political science professor, Mafumba left the Congo three years ago, after being arrested for demonstrating against then-President Joseph Kabila, who was refusing to step down after his second term, the constitutional limit. He stayed in Brazil for 2 1/2 years, got married and had a daughter.

Prince Pombo Mafumba talks on the phone as he waits at the Greyhound bus station with his wife, Thaiz Santos Neri, and daughter, Heaven Pombo Neri, after arriving in Portland on Wednesday afternoon. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After saving enough money, Mafumba decided to bring his family to the U.S. by traversing a perilous route through Central America. He said he was detained at the U.S. border and then released in San Antonio.

Along the way people encouraged him and others to go to Portland, Maine, where Mafumba ended up after a few months in Buffalo, New York.

“I heard people talking about Portland, Maine,” said another recent arrival outside the family shelter, who identified himself only by his first name, Junior. “They said life is good there.”

At the news conference, Jennings said a meeting with Gov. Janet Mills and representatives of the state and federal delegations has been scheduled for Friday at 3 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium rehearsal hall to coordinate a response. He said the state has not made any firm commitments about helping the city, but those details could be finalized in the coming days.

“The governor and her staff have been incredibly supportive of what the city is experiencing,” Jennings said. “They wanted to make sure we understood we are not in this alone.”

The Mills administration said it already has provided some assistance.

“The administration, through the Maine Emergency Management Agency, has provided cots and blankets to the city of Portland and is coordinating with volunteer, nonprofit organizations,” Lindsay Crete, Mills’ press secretary, said in an email. “The administration will remain in contact with Portland City officials.”

Last summer, Sen. Angus King toured Bayside, where the city’s family and adult shelters are located, in response to the Press Herald’s reporting about the record number of people staying in Portland’s shelters. King has expressed support for Portland’s approach to homelessness and advocated for a change in federal law to allow asylum seekers to work sooner.

More than 140 asylum seekers were housed Wednesday at the Portland Expo, where they were fed and given cots for sleeping. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Kristen Dow, the interim director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, said the city planned to set up 350 cots from the Maine Emergency Management Association at the Portland Expo on Wednesday afternoon. That facility, which could hold 600 cots, will be used to accommodate 126 asylum seekers who spent Tuesday night in various overflow facilities, including the city’s General Assistance office, as well any other additional people who arrive in the coming days.

The Expo will function as a 24-hour emergency shelter and central intake facility for the family shelter at 58 Chestnut St. for the foreseeable future. The nonprofit’s social services agency Preble Street has agreed to provide meals onsite for the families and the city’s recreation staff will be looking to create activities for the children who will be staying there, Jennings said.

Mayor Ethan Strimling applauded the city staff’s efforts to accommodate the asylum seekers. When President Trump threatened to send asylum seekers to so-called sanctuary cities, which prohibit police from helping immigration agents, Strimling replied, “Bring them on.” Portland is not considered a sanctuary city, but it strives to be a welcoming and compassionate one with programs to integrate immigrants into the community.

Portland has an ordinance that prohibits staff from asking about immigration status, although city police can assist immigration authorities. Portland also is believed to have the only municipally funded and administered financial assistance program in the U.S. for non-citizens. The fund is used to support people who do not qualify for state assistance.

Strimling stood by his “bring them on” comment in light of the current influx, which comes at a time when the city’s shelters are already overflowing and there is a shortage of low-income and affordable housing. He said immigrants are the solution to the state’s aging workforce.

“It takes a village for us to make sure we embrace this opportunity – that we recognize these young families who are coming into our city are our future,” Strimling said. “And we need to do everything we can to make sure that when they arrive they are stable and that they as quickly as possible are able to get on their feet and start supporting their families and contributing to our economy.”

Strimling said he reached out to South Portland and Westbrook for help. While Westbrook had yet to respond, South Portland officials scheduled a workshop for Thursday to discuss ways the city can help, though officials warned their options are limited.

Mayor Claude Morgan said the city has found $40,000 in projected savings in the current municipal budget ending June 30 that could be reallocated to help asylum seekers. But whether the city could do more remains to be seen.

“Our neighbors across the river have asked for our help. Unfortunately, under our current policies, finances and customary practices, we’re very limited,” Morgan said. “South Portland can do something, but in my humble estimation, it’s not enough.”

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings speaks at a news conference Wednesday at City Hall, with Mayor Ethan Strimling behind him. The city is opening an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo in response to a surge of asylum seekers coming to the city. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jennings said that the city also has received a flood of interest from people who want to help the asylum seekers. In addition to accepting donations online, phone, by 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, he said.

Dow said the city’s “amazing” shelter staff have been working hard to make sure each asylum seeker is provided for.

“I am incredibly proud of our shelter staff,” Dow said. “They are caring and compassionate individuals. And they have really taken this in stride. I’m proud to say that the level of care that each of our guests of the shelter are receiving has not wavered. And we’re trying to take care of  our staff  so they know they are supported.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz and Staff Writers Rob Wolfe and Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report. 

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