Volunteers serve lunch to asylum seekers in the emergency shelter at the Portland Expo. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland’s first warning came at 7 p.m. on June 9, a Sunday evening, in an email from San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh.

It simply said he wanted to give Portland City Manager Jon Jennings a “heads up on an issue.”

By the time the two spoke on the phone Monday morning, dozens of migrants from Africa had arrived at a bus station in downtown Portland. And Walsh told Jennings that 150 asylum seekers were still on their way to Portland from his city near the Mexico border.

Over the coming days and weeks, more than 330 migrants who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola and traveled thousands of miles through Central America and Mexico arrived in Portland on Greyhound buses. The influx overwhelmed the city’s network of homeless shelters, and, as noncitizens, the new arrivals are ineligible for state or federal financial assistance and not allowed to get jobs and earn their own money.

The sudden arrival of so many migrants thrust city and state officials into an ongoing discussion about how to house the families, what public assistance can be offered and who will pay. While some voices in the community have argued that the newcomers will take scarce resources from citizens in need, those were drowned out by more than $500,000 in cash donations, a flood of 1,200 volunteers and a variety of offers to house the newcomers in college dorms, vacant apartment buildings and spare bedrooms.

Meanwhile, Jennings responded to the warning from Texas by getting the blessing of city councilors to declare an emergency and quickly convert the Portland Expo, home arena for the Red Claws basketball team, into a temporary shelter. The Maine Emergency Management Agency provided over 300 cots. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent public health nurses. And local nonprofits provided food, linens and other basic necessities, such as hygiene products.


Immigrant communities in Portland began collecting and sorting donated clothing, providing interpreters and transportation, and cooking meals. Immigration attorneys spent a day volunteering at the shelter to provide legal advice to the migrants.

City officials and others are now focusing on the difficult next phase of the relief effort: moving the families out of the temporary shelter into more stable housing. Officials in surrounding communities are asking landlords and developers to offer up any vacant apartments for the families. And a regional coalition of governments is looking to establish a homestay program, so host families can be vetted and connected to those in the shelter.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, told constituents they were pushing for tens of millions of dollars to be appropriated for cities such as Portland that are grappling with a sudden increase in migrants coming through the southern border. Pingree also has introduced a bill to shorten the amount of time asylum seekers must wait to begin working, from at least 180 days after filing their application to 30 days.

In a video posted on Twitter, Pingree contrasted Portland’s reaction to the migrant influx to the conditions in the federal detention centers, where young children go without sleep and basic necessities such as soap, toothpaste and diapers, among other things.

“There are cots. There are blankets. There’s healthy food,” Pingree said. “There’s medical checks. There’s toys for the kids. That’s the way it should be done.”

Gov. Janet Mills vowed to help Portland, too, although no firm plans have been announced about extending public assistance to the asylum seekers. “It’s not just an issue that Portland is going to deal with alone,” Mills said during a meeting with state and city officials. “We are all in this together.”


Portland city leaders are waiting for a response from the Mills administration before deciding whether to pump local taxpayer money into a support fund for noncitizens. Meanwhile, the private donations have provided breathing room for policymakers faced with difficult choices about long-term assistance.

Portland’s response at the municipal and community level has not gone unnoticed by officials in San Antonio.

Tino Gallegos, San Antonio’s immigrant liaison, remembers the large groups of migrants arriving in his city weeks ago and insisting that they wanted to go to Portland. He couldn’t understand it at the time, but said last week that it was a “beautiful expression of humanity” to see the response, especially coming from a small city of 67,000 people.

“I’m really in awe of what Portland, Maine, has done,” he said. “You have all lived up to your reputation that you are a welcoming city. You have gone above and beyond. I am humbled by what your city has done.”

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