Asylum seekers wait near the General Assistance office in Sanford City Hall on Monday. On Tuesday, city leaders said the asylum seekers were brought to Sanford by individuals who told them they would get better benefits. The city says it has been overwhelmed by the resulting influx of people looking for General Assistance.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Several individuals brought vans full of asylum seekers from Portland to Sanford with the promise of better benefits, overwhelming the city’s General Assistance office and creating a crisis situation, Sanford officials said Tuesday.

During the first public meeting since the influx of asylum seekers to the city began last week, City Manager Steven Buck said he is just learning how many of the more than 100 people who have come to Sanford for assistance “were solicited and brought here.” Buck did not publicly identify the people who transported asylum seekers and said he is still in the process of verifying what is happening and how to stop it.

“It was van load after van load after van load,” he said.

Some of those asylum seekers are already receiving General Assistance in another community and were told by Sanford officials that they are ineligible to also receive benefits in Sanford. They have since returned to the communities where they had been staying.

City councilors expressed frustration that people were brought to the city and given misinformation about available resources, with one likening the situation to human trafficking. But they also praised the municipal staff, community organizations and others who have stepped in to help keep people safe and fed while they are connected with the long-term, sustainable resources the city is not able to provide.

The city continues to ask asylum seekers not to come to Sanford, where there is no shelter and the hotels that accept housing vouchers are full. Anyone who does come will be responsible for finding their own housing before receiving a voucher.


“This has become overwhelming,” Buck said.


The first asylum-seeking families and individuals began arriving at city hall early last week. Those who signed up for General Assistance were placed in a local hotel. But by Monday, nearly 100 asylum seekers had arrived. More came on Tuesday, though Buck did not have an exact number.

The city is now in the process of cross-checking lists of General Assistance recipients in other communities, including Portland, to see if anyone who has received a housing voucher and is staying in a Sanford hotel is ineligible for assistance.

The current situation in Sanford demonstrates the acute nature of the housing crisis across the state and highlights the need for a coordinated statewide resettlement tracking infrastructure, the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition said in a statement.

“A central hub for tracking the numbers, whereabouts and support systems available for newly arrived asylum seekers will increase the efficacy and efficiency of both privately and municipally administered social services. Moreover, it will promote equity in resettlement service provision across Maine towns and cities,” it said in a statement.


Some of the asylum seekers came from Portland, where an emergency shelter for asylum seekers at the Expo has been full since shortly after it opened on April 10 and the city says it cannot guarantee families a place to sleep. The city is no longer using overflow space in the multipurpose room at the Family Shelter, where families once slept sitting upright in chairs, and other city shelters remain full.

When people show up in Portland asking for General Assistance, they are now issued a list of landlords, which puts them on a self-directed housing search and provides them with information about possible resources in the greater Portland area.

Jordan Wilson, a spokesperson for Sanford, said Monday that the city was told by some asylum seekers that drivers for Uber, DoorDash and privately owned vehicles transported the families to Sanford. Some families solicited rides to Sanford from other asylum seekers, who have since found refuge in Maine.

Asylum seekers wait outside of Sanford City Hall on Monday. The city has said that it can’t handle the amount of people looking for General Assistance aid. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“This is essentially human trafficking,” Councilor Jonathan Martell said. “This is a horrific situation someone has put these people in.”

On Monday, the hallways outside of the General Assistance office were crowded with more than two dozen asylum seekers, including babies and small children, who were waiting to meet with staff. By Tuesday evening, there were about a dozen people waiting outside city hall, but staff expected those people would be picked up once it was clear city hall was closed for the night.

Mayor Becky Brink said it has been discouraging to hear that some who came already had a place to stay in Portland. Over the past week, the city has worked with a number of organizations to understand and respond to the situation, she said. Part of that process has been to learn that it is not helpful for the city to offer assistance it cannot sustain, such as opening a temporary shelter, or that operates outside of established systems set up to help people find housing and transition to life in Maine.


“We have to do stuff that really helps these families,” she said. “They are human beings.”


The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is working with Sanford municipal staff, nonprofit organizations, community groups and private businesses to support asylum seekers, but many questions remain and more solutions are still needed, the organization said in a statement. The organization urged people to remember that the individuals and families at the center of the situation “are not just numbers, but people and human beings.”

Asylum seekers wait inside City Hall in Sanford on Monday in a hall near the general assistance offices. The city has said that they can’t handle the number of asylum seekers looking for general assistance aid. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the coalition, said it is understandable that asylum seekers who are in desperate situations would seek out better situations. She praised the city for its response and said everyone should expect people will continue to come for assistance, even though her organization is helping spread the word about the lack of housing in Sanford.

“This is going to happen for a while,” she said.

The nonprofit Nasson Community Center worked with the city to open a community kitchen for people staying in local hotels who do not have access to food preparation resources. The model has been successful in supporting New Mainers in other communities and donations will be used to buy food and cookware, according to community center staff.


The kitchen will enable people to prepare culturally appropriate food that can be stored in dorm fridges in their hotel rooms, the organization said.

When the asylum-seeking families arrived in Sanford, there were residents who offered food, supplies and even temporary shelter. While those gestures came from a place of caring, Brink cautioned people not to provide accommodations or other help that could disconnect asylum seekers from established services and do more harm than good.


During Tuesday’s meeting, residents packed council chambers to ask questions and offer their input. Some questioned why the city was providing assistance to people from outside the community while there are already people in the community who need help. Others questioned federal immigration policy and said the state and federal government need to step in to help communities that are bearing the burden.

But others asked what more could be done to help and said they were concerned about the safety of asylum seekers who have been yelled at by passers-by.

Buck, the city manager, said he encourages everyone to reach out to state and federal representatives to push for changes that would allow asylum seekers to work sooner and to increase the amount of state reimbursement municipalities receive for General Assistance expenditures.

Despite the long hours and difficulty of dealing with the emergency, Buck said there have been bright moments as he talked with asylum seekers and watched a police officer play with their children.

“For me, dealing with the human side of this helps me deal with what is happening here,” he said.

Buck said he planned to talk to the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday to see what assistance the state can provide.

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