Groups of migrants continued to flow through a Portland bus station Thursday as dozens of families who arrived in recent days settled into a temporary emergency shelter that was slowly filling with travel-weary asylum seekers from Africa.

Tired parents lay stretched out on green cots spread across the wooden floor of the Portland Expo, home of the Maine Red Claws minor league basketball team. Some wore sweatshirts and covered themselves in wool blankets donated by Maine Medical Center. Others finished lunch provided by the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street.

Despite an otherwise desperate situation, the happy shrieks of young children reverberated throughout the gym. A young girl wearing a paper crown played with a Bob the Builder figurine, as a young boy kicked a small soccer ball. A large group of children threw paper airplanes made with the help of the shelter’s staff, while others gave each other rides in baby strollers or played video games on cellphones.

The sports arena, which can hold 600 cots, was converted into a temporary shelter Wednesday after other shelter space was overwhelmed by people who fled violence or persecution in Africa. The migrants, including many families with young children, traveled through Central America and Mexico before legally entering the United States at the southern border and finally making their way by bus the final 2,000 miles from San Antonio to Portland.

Groups of families have been arriving since Sunday. City officials say more than 170 people had checked into the shelter by Thursday afternoon and scores more were on the way.

Among those staying at the Expo was asylum seeker Samuel Mani, who didn’t give his full last name, saying he had been jailed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for political reasons. He and his family first arrived in Portland weeks ago, when the stream of asylum seekers was small enough to fit into the city’s shelter for homeless families and a nearby Salvation Army gymnasium.

Mani arrived in Portland on May 13 with his 8-year-old daughter and his 25-year-old wife, who is expecting to give birth to the couple’s second child later this month. Like those arriving this week, they also made the dangerous monthslong journey through the jungles and mountains of Central America to the U.S.

Mani, 33, said through one of the interpreters helping the city that his family came to Portland because he heard it was one of the few places that would help asylum-seekers like them. And he is grateful for that support.

“I am grateful to the organizations that have done this and I congratulate them because I know it can be very difficult to do that,” Mani said in his native French. “Within some time, we will be able to have our own home and work permit and we will be able to contribute to the community.”

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.

Sofia Ida, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rests with one of her children Thursday at the Portland Expo. Ida, who is pregnant, came to Portland with her two children and her husband after fleeing from Congo to Brazil. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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.

It’s unclear how long the city will need to operate the shelter or how much it will cost the city. But, with a shortage of low-income and affordable housing, it could take a while to move people out of the Expo, especially if other communities don’t offer to help.

“Right now, we’re still in emergency situation mode,” said Kristen Dow, the interim director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department.

A community meeting between city officials, the governor, federal officials and nonprofits has been scheduled for Friday afternoon to discuss ways to coordinate a response to the influx.

City officials have said that the new arrivals are not eligible for state-funded General Assistance because border agents did not conduct a credible-fear interview and give them a parole status. That means, for now, they are relying solely on the city’s financial assistance and from the donations and other support flowing in from businesses, nonprofits and citizens.

Alegria Landu, 9, goes through her belongings Thursday at the Portland Expo. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Sue Roche, executive director of the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, noted that even though the new arrivals have not been paroled, they have been given a so-called A number and a notice to appear in immigration court. But Roche did not go so far as to say that should qualify them for General Assistance.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said the city is in discussions with the state to clarify eligibility, but no final determination has been made.

Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the General Assistance programs, responded Thursday by saying, “To be eligible for General Assistance, individuals must apply for asylum.” She did not elaborate. It can take many months and professional legal help for an asylum seeker to complete and file a formal application.

If the new arrivals do not qualify for General Assistance, the city will be meeting the basic needs for shelter, food and medication through the Portland Community Support Fund, which is believed to be the only municipally funded and administered assistance program for non-citizens in the country. That fund ran out of money in April and the City Council allocated another $200,000 to the fiscal year that begins July 1. But that budget was set before the surge of new arrivals, and councilors know that money won’t last long.

A woman reads a Bible while resting on a cot Thursday at the Portland Expo. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On Monday night, city councilors are expected to decide whether to restrict eligibility for the fund. Proposals run the gamut – from keeping the fund open to everyone, to limiting enrollment to people who have been denied help since it ran dry in April, to enrolling only those who have applied by July 1.

After the rules are established, the council will then have to decide how much more money needs to be allocated.

‘STILL IN PLANNING MODE’

The city hosted 140 people Wednesday night – the first night the shelter was opened, Dow said.

Families were able to shower Thursday morning, she said, with Mercy Hospital providing towels and personal hygiene kits donated by the Salvation Army.

The nonprofit social services agency Preble Street has been providing meals to the families. And Dow said public health nurses from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention are onsite to handle any medical needs of the families.

Alegria Landu, 9, pushes her brother Gabriel, 3, in a stroller at the emergency shelter for asylum seekers at the Portland Expo. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Everything went really well last night,” Dow said, commending the staff. “But we’re still in planning mode to make sure we can continue to meet the needs as the numbers rise.”

Dow said a family of five arrived at 3 a.m. Thursday, and more climbed off buses throughout the day. As of 1:30 p.m., the total number checked into the shelter was 170, she said. Several more families comprising over a dozen people, including at least six kids, arrived as the media toured the facility Thursday afternoon.

COMMUNITY WANTS TO HELP

Immigrants hoping to start a new life in Portland were not the only people coming to the shelter Thursday. The city has been turning away a steady stream of others eager to volunteer or drop off donated items such as children’s toys and clothing.

David Musins, a 23-year-old student at the University of Southern Maine, was one of the people turned away Thursday. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Musins said he recognized someone who was standing outside the shelter and decided to try to help.

“I want to talk to them a little – tell them it’s going to be fine and how to get accustomed to the whole process,” said Musins, who is here as a student. “I just want to talk to them in our own language. Maybe that will help them feel more welcome.”

A handful of volunteers from the Greater Portland Family Promise, a nonprofit that provides assistance to asylum seekers, were waiting at a local bus station, anticipating the arrival of more asylum seekers.

Families rest on cots at the emergency shelter for asylum seekers at the Portland Expo. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Priscilla Armstrong of Cape Elizabeth said families have traveled thousands of miles, in many cases on foot and with young children, and offering them a short ride from the bus station to the Expo was the least she could do.

“These people are fleeing desperate situations. We need to be a welcoming country,” Armstrong said. “I know Portland is a welcoming community. I hope that neighboring communities will rise to the occasion as well.”

Dow said the city is working with community partners to sign up and conduct background checks of volunteers so that it can accept the help. Meanwhile, the city is urging people not to show up at the shelter. If people want to help, they should contribute online, she said. And many are doing just that.

Grondin, the city spokeswoman, said as of 1:30 p.m. Thursday the city had received over $63,000 from over 700 donors. The vast majority of that has come through a new text-to-donate option that was announced Wednesday. She said donations have ranged from $5 to $1,000.

The faith community also is getting involved.

On Thursday afternoon, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland issued a statement encouraging people to make a financial donation to the city to help meet the basic needs of the families.

“Please remember that these individuals and families are filled with anxiety and fear about what will happen to them,” Bishop Robert Deeley said in a written statement. “This time of grave difficulty for some of our brothers and sisters calls us to show our concern and solidarity, answering our baptismal call to serve the most vulnerable among us, regardless of whether they are born in America or are new arrivals.”

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