Portland city councilors have canceled a meeting scheduled for Monday to discuss financial support for asylum seekers, amid uncertainty about whether the more than 200 newly arrived African migrants will receive any state assistance.

The Legislature adjourned early Thursday morning without restoring state General Assistance eligibility for a broad range of asylum seekers, a move that would have eased the financial burden on Portland and greatly expanded housing options for the roughly 58 families, totaling 228 people, who were staying at an emergency shelter in Portland as of Thursday night.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said the council’s meeting was postponed to give Gov. Janet Mills more time to follow through on her efforts to help the city accommodate the sudden influx of asylum seekers, who would otherwise be looking to Portland taxpayers and private donations to pay for shelter, food, medicine and other necessities.

“We didn’t want to meet again until we had more information” from the state, Strimling said. “I feel good they’re doing what they need to do to make sure General Assistance serves everyone who is low-income and not just some.”

The families, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are seeking asylum in the U.S. to escape violence and persecution in their homelands. While they are lawfully present and protected from deportation, it can take months or even years for asylum applications to be processed. And asylum seekers are prohibited from working for at least six months after filing their applications.

Virtually all of the families currently staying at the Portland Expo, which has been converted into an emergency shelter, are ineligible for General Assistance.

Portland has what is believed to be the only municipally funded and administered aid program in the U.S. for non-citizens. But councilors did not anticipate such an influx of demand for aid, so they were expected to discuss and vote Monday on eligibility for that program. Proposals range from continuing to offer assistance to anyone who applies to closing the program entirely to new applicants.

Gov. Janet Mills, center, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, to her left, and others listen to Jason Owens of the U.S. Border Patrol during a meeting on June 14 to discuss the asylum-seeker surge into Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

About 300 African migrants have arrived in Portland in recent weeks, although some of the families have left the Expo to either stay with people in the community or move on to other locations, including Canada. Several families have said they came here after reaching Texas because of Portland’s reputation as a welcoming community, its financial assistance programs and its established immigrant communities.

City Manager Jon Jennings has said the influx of migrants appears to have stabilized, although a city spokesperson said Friday that two families of four arrived Thursday afternoon.

Jennings said relief efforts have shifted to a new phase that includes finding stable housing for the families who are choosing to remain in the Portland area. This week, surrounding communities agreed to look for vacant housing units that could be used to house the migrants.

If those housing efforts are successful, the conversation will then turn to who will pay.

The office of Republican Sen. Susan Collins announced Wednesday that the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 30-1 to support providing $4.59 billion to address the increased pressure on the southern border, including $30 million in federal emergency management funding for communities such as Portland that are struggling to accommodate a surge in asylum seekers.

On Friday, Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office announced the House Appropriations Committee had passed a bill that included $60 million for communities like Portland. Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, also has reintroduced a bill that would allow asylum seekers to begin working 30 days after filing their application, rather than having to wait 180 days.

Portland officials have been lobbying state lawmakers to expand General Assistance eligibility to include all asylum seekers. That could provide Portland and other communities with funding to help house the asylum seekers, as well as provide for other basic needs.

Last week, Mills expressed empathy for the long and arduous journey these families, including pregnant women and young children, made to get to Maine. And she assured Portland that the state would help, without specifying how.

A spokesman for Mills said the Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing General Assistance eligibility and noted the deployment of public health nurses from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other emergency resources to assist Portland.

“Governor Mills appreciated the city’s informative briefing and believes the greatest need is in addressing long-term challenges – including connecting individuals with legal and educational resources and examining options for housing and other support,” Scott Ogden said in a written statement. “Her administration remains in contact with city officials to determine the most effective way to assist in these long-term efforts. The Department of Health and Human Services is closely reviewing the eligibility guidelines for General Assistance.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, proposed a bill that would have expanded General Assistance, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and MaineCare coverage for all asylum seekers. That bill would cost roughly $7.1 million in each of the next two years, figures that included one-time technology upgrades.

The House voted 88-51 largely along party lines to pass an amended version of that bill that would have expanded eligibility but would not have provided any additional funding in the state budget. Ultimately, the bill was not taken up by the Senate and was carried over to the next session.

Portland created the Community Support Fund in 2015 when it looked like then-Gov. Paul LePage would prohibit non-citizens from continuing to receive General Assistance. The city fund was infused with $2.6 million to take care of about 900 people who would have lost assistance.

The LePage administration later issued rules narrowing eligibility. Those deemed eligible include “a non-immigrant” and “an alien who is paroled into the United States … for less than a year.” It also includes non-citizens who have filed asylum applications.

In the past, most of the asylum seekers in Portland entered the country legally on temporary visitor or student visas, which typically last 6 months, and then sought permission to stay permanently. However, it could take a year or more for those individuals to file their asylum application, creating a period of time during which they were not eligible for General Assistance.

After the rules were established, Portland councilors decided to use the Community Support Fund to continue providing GA-type assistance to people who fell into the gap. They have continued to fund what was originally envisioned as a one-time program.

In recent years, the city has seen an increasing number of asylum seekers enter through the southern U.S. border. Initially, most of those individuals, primarily in families, had been paroled at the border after undergoing an initial interview. Being “paroled” made them eligible for GA in Maine.

But the recent arrivals in Portland do not have formal paroled status and are not eligible for General Assistance under the current rules. As a result, the city has been meeting basic needs through the Community Support Fund, which has been funded in recent years at $200,000.

The fund ran out of money in April and is currently $96,000, or 48 percent, over-budget for the fiscal year that ends this month. The $200,000 allocated for the year beginning July 1 will not last long given the increased demand for help.

Families in the past have used the fund for only four or five months on average, but city officials expect the recent arrivals will need to rely on the Community Support Fund longer than their predecessors because it will take longer to get their asylum cases transferred to Boston before their cases can be heard.

Jennings said it would cost as much as $1.4 million to support the 60 families now staying at the Expo for one year, and that does not include the 124 people who are now staying at the Family Shelter.

Strimling said the city has enough money to continue operating the fund at least for the first weeks or months of the fiscal year beginning in July. In addition to the $200,000 city allocation, about $400,000 has been donated by the community to help.

“We’re in pretty good shape in terms of being able to help these people,” Strimling said.

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