Donors have given over $230,000 to help Portland and hundreds have offered to volunteer as the city provides shelter and humanitarian assistance for more than 200 asylum seekers who have arrived over the past week.
Portland set up an emergency shelter Wednesday at the Portland Expo on Park Avenue to accommodate a sudden arrival of people seeking political asylum in the U.S. that began June 9.
Mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, the asylum seekers asked to go to Portland when they crossed the southern U.S. border after a treacherous journey from their home countries, where they faced violence and persecution.
On Friday night, shelter staff counted 207 people staying at the Expo, but the city has recorded 248 people in all who have come to the city, Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said Saturday. Many people have connections with family or friends in the Portland area, and others have moved on to Canada after a night or two, she said.
Portland officials have said the new arrivals are not eligible for state-funded General Assistance because border agents did not conduct a “credible fear” interview and give them a parole status. Credible fear is a concept in U.S. asylum law that says people who demonstrate a credible fear of returning to their home country cannot be subject to deportation until their asylum cases are processed.
That means, for now, the asylum seekers are relying solely on the city’s financial assistance and on donations and other support flowing in from businesses, nonprofits and private individuals. As of Saturday afternoon, the city had raised more than $230,000 in donations to help people staying at the Expo, Grondin said.
Last year, the Portland City Council allocated $200,000 to a city assistance fund set up to support noncitizens who are not eligible for General Assistance for the city’s current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2018. Nearly half of that money was used up within the first three months.
In addition to making donations, hundreds of area residents also have applied to work as volunteers to help the asylum seekers, according to the United Way of Greater Portland. The organization said that as of Saturday evening, it had received 776 volunteer applications over a period of two days.
“The outpouring of support from the community is remarkable,” said United Way of Greater Portland President and CEO Liz Cotter in a statement. “We cannot thank people enough for raising their hands and expressing an interest in volunteering to help our new neighbors.”
A plan to provide recreational programs for children and families staying in the Expo was shelved Saturday so that city staff could focus on providing aid, Grondin said.
“Until we get the emergency operations fully running and have staffing levels that are adequate, we can’t really institute the recreational program,” she said. “It has been all hands on deck right now making sure this is working.”
The city did bring in a TV and some DVDs to have a movie night Friday, and staff members have been sharing their laptops to watch videos and bringing in games and coloring materials, Grondin said.
Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and other officials met with city staff Friday to discuss the situation and tour the Expo. Mills pledged help from the state but has not released any details about what that support might entail.
“The Governor appreciated yesterday’s informative briefing, and the administration remains in contact with city officials as we now work to determine the most effective way to support and assist the City moving forward,” Scott Ogden, Mills’ communications director, said in an email Saturday. “In the meantime, the administration, through the Maine CDC, continues to deploy public health nurses and trained, credentialed members of the Medical Reserve Corps to serve the health needs of those newly arrived. (The Maine Emergency Management Agency) also continues to help coordinate volunteer, nonprofit organizations to help ensure a smooth delivery of services.”
Staff Writer J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.
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