WESTBROOK — City residents were united Monday evening in saying the community should help asylum seekers who have recently arrived in neighboring Portland, but speakers at a City Council meeting were divided on whether tax dollars should be used.

Mayor Michael Sanphy called a special city council meeting to discuss Portland’s request for assistance in providing shelter, food and other services to a large and sudden influx of African asylum seekers who have arrived by bus this month from the southern U.S. border.

The immigrants have traveled for months, through Central America and Mexico. They asked for asylum at the border as required and were cleared to travel on, federal officials said. However, they weren’t given official asylum or paroled status that qualifies them for state and local support through Maine’s General Assistance program.

Many residents recalled Westbrook’s working-class history as a city of immigrants and their own ancestry as descendants of immigrants. They cited the contributions that the newcomers would make to the city of nearly 19,000 residents and the need that many Maine employers have for workers.

“I urge the city of Westbrook to live up to its heart … and do whatever we can (to) say welcome,” said David Travers, one of six residents who spoke in favor of Westbrook taxpayers pitching in.

Other residents said people should give privately whatever they can afford, but they noted recent local budget cuts and increasing education costs, as well as the need to care for homeless veterans and respond to the opioid crisis. They said the influx of newcomers is a federal problem that should be addressed through immigration reform, such as ending the ban that keeps asylum seekers from working for six months. And they blamed Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling for saying Maine’s largest city would welcome more immigrants if President Trump sent them here.


“My heart tells me we should help them, but my head tells me we can’t afford it … It’s just too much of a burden,” said Rose Morin, one of five residents who warned against using local tax dollars to help the asylum seekers.

No formal proposal to help the immigrants was presented. City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the council likely will consider taking some action at its July 1 meeting.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said Monday that the flow of asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo appeared to be slowing. Only four individuals presented themselves Monday at the temporary shelter that’s been set up at the Portland Expo, bringing the total number of arrivals since June 9 to 223 people. He said 60 families, totaling 212 individuals, stayed at the Expo Sunday night.

Bryant said Strimling told him Monday that Portland wouldn’t turn down a cash contribution, but the city’s top priority is finding permanent housing for the asylum seekers.

Bryant figured if 25 families, or 100 individuals asylum seekers, settled in Westbrook, the city’s annual General Assistance budget would jump from $491,750 this year (78 percent of which assisted immigrants) to more than $1 million. He said it’s possible, but uncertain, that state officials will lift the ban on asylum seekers receiving General Assistance benefits, and thereby pick up 70 percent of the city’s costs.

Like the residents who spoke, city councilors appeared to be divided on whether municipal government should be involved in helping the immigrants.


Councilor Anna Turcotte recalled how she came to the United States as a teenager, an Armenian refugee whose family was persecuted in Azerbaijan.

“America saved us,” Turcotte said. “These people are here. If Westbrook doesn’t do something, it’s not the Westbrook I know.”

Councilor Brendan Rielly said “there are things that only government can do” and that it would take a combination of public and private assistance to help immigrants who “are being used as political pawns” in a crisis “created by our federal government.”

Councilors Lawrence McWilliams and Michael Foley said private individuals should contribute what they can but advised against using tax dollars. Councilors Gary Rairdon and Victor Chau and Mayor Sanphy were less clear about their positions, speaking generally to the compassion of the community and the rising costs to taxpayers.

“We don’t have the answers right now,” Rairdon said.

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