Portland’s temporary shelter for asylum seekers was set to close Thursday at midnight. Put together on the fly, the shelter and the community that sprung up around it represented a compassionate and welcoming response to a humanitarian emergency. It showcased the best of Maine, and of humanity.
Since early June, 437 people, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have arrived in the city in need of shelter and aid. According to the city of Portland, 212 have found temporary housing in apartments in southern Maine. Another 30 families are living with local hosts under a program coordinated by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
The remaining asylum seekers will now go to the city-run family shelter or a temporary shelter at the Salvation Army – though the latter may not be needed – until they too find housing.
These exhausted families, who have been under immense physical and mental strain since leaving their home countries, can now begin to settle in. They face a difficult road ahead building their new life in a strange place – but it is nothing compared to what they have endured thus far.
The city of Portland should be proud of what it has done here – along with the state agencies and service organizations, volunteers and donors who helped house, feed, clothe, treat, educate and guide the asylum seekers through the last two months.
(It should be noted, too, that no aid was taken from citizens to provide help to asylum seekers, and that asylum seekers received no assistance that isn’t already available to other residents. Maine can and should address homelessness, hunger and unemployment in whatever form they take.)
Portland’s actions stood in stark contrast to how the Trump administration treated asylum seekers, putting them in cages without adequate food and shelter, in an atmosphere imbued with threats and menace. As people in Maine were doing their best to help traumatized families, federal authorities continued to pull them apart.
Maine didn’t ask to be the place of last resort for a broken, overwhelmed immigration system. But that’s what happened, and the many Mainers who responded with empathy and an open mind truly lived up to our country’s ideals.
No, Portland didn’t invite this emergency with its policies on immigrant aid, and Gov. Mills didn’t further open the floodgates when she changed state rules to aid asylum seekers. The migrants hoping to get in to our country along our southern border aren’t there because they heard that Portland has free housing, but because their lives at home are unsafe and hopeless.
And the city’s policies are extravagant only when considered alongside the baffling and counterproductive federal system, which strands asylum seekers in our communities for months, even years, without basic aid or the ability to work.
There are real questions regarding how the United States should operate its asylum program. We can debate the criteria under which people are allowed to seek asylum, the process by which they apply and what they are allowed to do while they wait for a decision. We can discuss what resources are necessary to allow such a system to function effectively.
We can debate the merits of the asylum system. But we should never question the humanity of the people caught in it.
Under the Trump administration, questioning the humanity of immigrants has become the country’s policy. Over the last two months, Maine showed that it doesn’t have to be.
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