Gov. Janet Mills praised the efforts of Portland’s government and community leaders to accommodate a dramatic influx of asylum seekers from Africa, and pledged the state government and everyday Mainers would continue to do whatever is necessary to welcome them.

“It’s not just an issue that Portland is going to deal with alone,” Mills said during a meeting with state and city officials at Merrill Auditorium late Friday afternoon. “We are all in this together. It’s an issue that all surrounding communities and the state of Maine are dealing with and will be dealing with, and I urge other communities to step up to the plate and contribute their assistance, as well.”

As of Friday afternoon, Portland was housing 186 newly arrived asylum seekers at the Portland Expo, City Manager Jon Jennings said. Families and large groups began arriving by bus from the southern border Sunday, fleeing violence or persecution in Africa. The migrants traveled through Central America and Mexico before legally entering the United States and making their way to Portland. As many as another 150 are expected, Jennings said. The expo has room for about 450 cots, he said.

“It’s a very fluid situation on the ground. Some families have decided to move on,” Jennings said. “We know some are traveling through Portland to Canada, others have simply found friends and family to stay with.”

The city has taken in more than 220 people, Jennings said, adding that more than 40 family members left the city shelter after being processed.

The new arrivals are not eligible for state General Assistance, and are relying on city funds and donations from the community. More than $200,000 has been collected “just in the last few days,” Jennings said.

With donations and volunteer resources, Portland will be able to serve three meals a day to the migrants for the next several weeks, he said. The University of Southern Maine has offered to open one of its dorms in Gorham, and several local businesses and foundations – including Hannaford, Wex and Unum – have offered food and support in other ways.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state is providing health screening to all asylum seekers, vaccinations when necessary, and early child and prenatal care for new and expecting mothers, as well as “go packs” with baby supplies. The city also received several dozen portable cribs.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, also attended Friday’s meeting at the Merrill Auditorium rehearsal hall. Sen. Susan Collins, who was in Portland for two events Friday, sent a representative to the meeting but did not attend. Sen. Angus King also sent a representative.

Jason Owens of the U.S. Border Patrol addresses Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Portland officials and others during a meeting Friday to discuss the surge of asylum seekers into Portland, and whether the state can help with the costs. Owens, who was stationed previously in Laredo, Texas, said asylum seekers are choosing to travel from the southern U.S. border to Portland because the city has a reputation for being a welcoming community. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mills and Pingree toured the Expo after the meeting.

Pingree offered no immediate financial help to Portland to offset the costs of housing and caring for the migrants, but said she would work to find federal assistance “so cities like Portland and other cities experiencing unexpected numbers of new arrivals have the level of support they need. Now, just to be clear, funding through the United States federal government can be long and slow and tedious, but I know the House of Representatives is working fast on an appropriations bill, and we will do our best to get some funding into that.”

“It may take a while, but it would be great for cities like Portland and other cities that are opening their doors and welcoming to have the level of assistance you deserve.”

About 100 people attended the meeting. They filled every chair and stood along the back and sides of the room. Most applauded what they heard, and the audience offered several standing ovations when speakers finished talking.

Among those in attendance was South Portland resident Marcayla Amadei, who wore a Donald Trump hat. She said she wanted to hear directly about the situation and ensure that “both sides are present for the discussion, and both sides should be heard.””

She worries that the needs of the asylum seekers will overwhelm Portland’s resources, and the costs will fall to other communities. In South Portland, the city is discussing spending as much as $100,000 to assist Portland in welcoming the asylum seekers.

“If Portland is not able to follow through with its plan, the state will step in, and the whole state could then become a sanctuary state,” Amadei said. “This is something that affects Maine. It affects my friends on the border and my friends in Florida, and the fact that it is trickling up all the way to Maine shows the extent of the problem.”

Mills said the state government has made “no determination” about its path forward, other than to guarantee that the newcomers will be welcomed and the state will do whatever it can to assist them and help Portland manage its crisis. She acknowledged the unknown costs, but said Mainers have a history of helping out in need, no matter the circumstance.

Marcayla Amadei, left, of South Portland and Shaun Hufton of Saco hold signs in protest during Friday’s meeting at Merrill Auditorium, at which Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Portland officials and others discussed the response to the recent surge of asylum seekers.

“It’s a fundamental fact – these are families. These are people. These are people who need our help,” Mills said. “These are people who arrived here in Maine with their families after traveling thousands of miles over the course of many months to flee violence and and escape hostility and brutality. … They’ve undergone this dangerous journey in pursuit of freedom and liberty, concepts and principles that are the cornerstone of our nation’s principles and unknown to them in their countries of origin. Maine people have a long, proud tradition of caring for our neighbors. As we continue to develop responses and strategies, which will require difficult and practical decisions about the deployment of our scarce resources, let’s keep that in mind always.”

Jason Owens, chief of U.S. Customs & Border Protection in Maine, said the asylum seekers in Maine are part of a larger group of Africans who entered at the border. They were processed after making asylum claims, and chose to come to Maine, he said. They were released on their own recognizance and given a notice to appear at the location where they choose to wait for their hearing.

“They are not paroled into the country and they have not had their case adjudicated one way or the other,” Owens said. “They are actually awaiting a trial with an immigration judge to make that determination.” Depending on the backlog of cases, asylum seekers could wait several months to a couple of years for a hearing, he said.

Owens also said he was impressed with the response of Mainers to this crisis. He has spent most of his career on the southern border, where he has witnessed the human toll of a long journey. “It’s very heartwarming to come up here and see this side of it and what American people are willing to do for their fellow man. The outreach is amazing,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing to watch.”

It is not clear how long Portland will operate the shelter at the Expo or what it will cost, Mayor Ethan Strimling said.

Strimling opened Friday’s meeting with an anecdote about a gentleman he met at the Expo who had spent five months walking with his five children. The man was grateful to be safe, if not yet settled. “He simply said, ‘I don’t know how I am going to give a gift as big as the gift I have received,'” Strimling said.

“I think we all understand that it takes a village. I think it has been remarkable to see how our village has risen up. I think we all knew that this was what our city would do when a moment like this arrived, when an opportunity like this arrived. But it has been so heartwarming to see it happen with such selflessness.”

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