SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Thursday discussed spending as much as $100,000 and organizing a regional effort to assist the city of Portland in welcoming an increasing number of asylum seekers arriving from the southern U.S. border.

The council backed Mayor Claude Morgan’s ideas, such as identifying potential shelter spaces in South Portland and lobbying other communities in Greater Portland to join the effort, but took no formal action in a workshop session Thursday night.

“What Portland needs is a logistical partner,” Morgan said. “I don’t want us to always be reactive.”

More than 25 residents spoke in favor of helping Portland assist asylum seekers in various ways, such as finding savings in the municipal budget and raising private donations in the community. They also supported the idea of shoring up existing programs that help immigrants and developing a regional approach to help newcomers from other countries that could include Westbrook, Falmouth, Scarborough and beyond.

Many said they were happy and proud to live in a community that cares about people in need. Several residents, some of them immigrants, expressed a desire to volunteer their time, homes and language skills to assist the asylum seekers.

“I really feel like it’s a moral obligation for myself and I hope my neighbors feel the same way,” said Susan Chase of Parrott Street.

Roberta Zuckerman of Preble Street was one of several speakers who noted that the United States was established and built by immigrants, and that immigrants continue to bring benefits.

“We don’t have enough people in Maine,” Zuckerman said, noting that many employers have a difficult time filling positions. “People are coming here. We should be standing up and cheering.”

Three people spoke against the city lending a hand, stressing that it will strain social services and suggesting that Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling created the problem by inviting immigrants to the city.

“We have limited resources,” said Chen Fielding of Winding Way, who described herself as a legal immigrant. “How are we going to … take care of our own people? We are really stretching our own resources.”

Since Sunday, Portland has received nearly 170 asylum seekers, most of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in the sub-Saharan countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Officials say an additional 150 asylum seekers heading for Portland have boarded buses in recent days in San Antonio, and hundreds more could be headed this way.

Portland officials have set up an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo, providing cots, linens, food, health care and translation services. The University of Southern Maine also responded to Portland’s call for assistance, offering the use of a vacant 200-bed dormitory on the Gorham campus through Aug. 7.

South Portland officials have responded to Portland’s call for assistance. They’ve found about $40,000 in projected savings in the current municipal budget ending June 30 that could be reallocated to help asylum seekers, and possibly $60,000 previously set aside for a broadband communications study.

Morgan said the city’s current policies, finances and customary practices for assisting immigrants are very limited. The city is set up to provide short-term shelter in local schools and community centers for residents displaced by natural disasters, such as ice storms or heat waves, he said.

In recent years, the city has assisted Portland in housing asylum seekers in local hotels and motels, and providing other services through its General Assistance program, City Manager Scott Morelli said.

As a result, South Portland’s General Assistance program has grown from helping 18 immigrants in fiscal 2015 to 156 immigrants in fiscal 2019, which ends June 30. In that period, the program’s budget has grown from $298,000 in fiscal 2015 to $608,000 for fiscal 2020.

Morgan called current federal immigration policies and practices “crazy and cruel.”

“We have become part of a trend,” Morgan said earlier this week. “National-level discussion of immigration policy has turned nasty and damaging. South Portland cannot save the world, but we have some obligation to take care of people who arrive on our doorstep.”

Morgan said he’s frustrated and disappointed that the U.S. immigration system has broken down to this point.

“Cities and towns aren’t in the business of immigration, and nobody told us we’d have to become experts on immigration,” Morgan said. “I hope our congressional delegation is watching. We’re a welcoming community, and we’ll do our best to provide for these newcomers, but (federal officials) need to get their act together.”

Asked on Wednesday what they might do to help Portland and stem the flow of migrants across the southern U.S. border, all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation pointed to the need for comprehensive immigration reform and efforts to improve the asylum process.

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