Portland officials are expecting the arrival of about 70 African migrants who have been released from custody at the U.S. southern border with plans to come to Maine to seek asylum.

The number of asylum seekers en route to Portland from Texas is much smaller than the hundreds who arrived unexpectedly over the summer. In June, 86 people flowed into Portland during one three-day period before city officials declared a formal emergency and converted the Portland Expo into a 24-hour shelter for two months.

The families now on their way to Portland could begin arriving later this week and will be offered overnight shelter in local gymnasiums that nonprofit agencies open to the city when its shelter for homeless families is full, as it is now. But with the Expo now in use as the home court of the Maine Red Claws professional basketball team, city officials also are making contingency plans for more shelter space in case the influx is larger than expected and the city runs out of space to accommodate the new arrivals.

“We don’t see this, as of now, as the crisis we dealt with in the summer,” City Manager Jon Jennings said Wednesday. “Instead of being reactive, we’re trying to be proactive in dealing with a set of circumstances that you don’t anticipate on a daily basis but has happened periodically for us.”

Jennings said he has been in communication with officials in San Antonio about the anticipated arrival of dozens of new asylum seekers. San Antonio is a common stop among asylum seekers and other immigrants who cross the southern U.S. border because it is a transportation hub.

Jennings said he was informed of the recent release of 150 asylum seekers, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries, into the U.S. He said 24 of the 67 people who intend to come to Portland are expected to arrive Friday.

It’s not clear what happened at the border that led to the large number of migrants to be released at one time. Officials from San Antonio were not available to be interviewed Wednesday. A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not answer a series of questions about activity at the border in time for this story.

Asylum seekers were housed in a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo this summer. That space is unavailable for the coming group of asylum seekers, expected this week.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Mufalo Chitam, executive director for the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, helped coordinate volunteer efforts at the Expo last summer and helped screen host families who provided temporary housing when migrants had to leave the Expo. Chitam said Wednesday that city officials alerted her and other immigrant community leaders about the impending arrivals.

“We’re ready to support the families as they come,” Chitam said. “The weather will be a challenge. It won’t be summer. That’s the piece that will be different and a little concerning – going into winter.”

In addition, while the Expo was open 24 hours, the overflow shelter spaces available now can only be used after hours for sleeping. Families have to leave the gymnasiums during the day.

Portland has a history of receiving a steady stream of asylum-seeking families in recent years.

Chitam believes changes in border protocols are causing those families to come in bigger groups, rather than a family here and there. And, she said, the city has a better line of communication with its counterparts in Texas about when those groups head this way.

“Normally, we have had families come,” she said. “What’s maybe different is they’re coming at the same time. The other piece is knowing that there was a release. We never had any knowledge on detention release dates.”

Last summer, Portland unexpectedly received nearly 450 people, including pregnant women and young children, who were seeking asylum in order to escape violence or persecution in their homeland.

Several migrant families described their death-defying journeys from Africa, through South and Central America, and Mexico to reach the U.S. in hopes of finding safety for their families.

Nearly all of the arrivals were from the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They said they waited at the Texas border for an opportunity to enter the U.S. at an official border crossing and ask for asylum, but instead crossed illegally into the U.S. after waiting months for access to one of the border crossings. The right to ask for asylum is available to those who cross into the country legally or illegally, and immigrants who make the request are legally allowed to stay while their case is processed.

City officials declared an emergency in response to the unexpected influx and used the Portland Expo building as a temporary shelter. A massive volunteer effort followed, as established immigrant communities offered to help with interpretation, food and helping to screen and coordinate host families.

The city raised over $900,000 in private donations to help care for the asylum seekers and Gov. Janet Mills made an emergency rule change to expand eligibility for General Assistance, a safety net program providing vouchers for rent, food, medicine and other necessities, to cover previously excluded asylum seekers.

The city was awarded a grant of more than $864,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the costs of operating the emergency shelter at the Expo through the end of June, receiving the money Tuesday, Jennings said.

The city shut down the shelter at the Expo on Aug. 15. The building has been put back into service as the home court for the Red Claws.

Tom Bell, a spokesman for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which helped coordinate the regional housing effort, said the host home program connected 41 families, totaling 148 individuals, with host families in 11 communities, ranging from Auburn to Brunswick to Portland to Saco.

“Nearly all of those (immigrant) families are now in permanent housing, so it was a successful effort, primarily because of the kindness and generosity of the host families,” Bell said.

Chitam said immigrant leaders partnered with the city, housing providers and other community groups to find permanent housing for the families staying with host families. She said they were able to find housing for 31 families in 12 communities, from Lewiston to Saco. Another 10 families returned to the shelter because time at their host home expired or wasn’t a good match.

Chitam said finding housing for the migrant families was difficult because of the lack of available housing and because the families lacked a rental history, which is required on many housing applications.

“The traditional application for any American didn’t fit for this group,” Chitam said. “We had to do a lot of education and a lot of cultural brokering for those landlords. It was very challenging.”

Since the intensive housing effort over the summer, Jennings said the city’s family shelter has been able to operate largely without using an overflow facility. That changed only recently. He said there are three families, including two who arrived from Africa, staying in overflow space.

Jennings said the city’s regular overflow facility, the Salvation Army gym, can hold around 75 people. However, that gym is not consistently available this time of year due to other events, so the city has an agreement with the YMCA, which also can accommodate 75 people.

Unlike the temporary shelter at the Expo, these overflow facilities are not open 24 hours a day and do not have food service on site, so those staying there will have to leave during the day and access services elsewhere.

If the city ends up receiving more migrants than it can accommodate, Jennings is hoping that another nearby community will step forward and offer to help, especially since the Expo is not available.

“We don’t want to get the community or the region alarmed by the large influx we saw over the summer,” Jennings said. “At the same time we do need to assess and deal with the situation on the ground.”

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