The Recent Influx Of African Asylum-Seekers Is Taxing Social Services In Maine

Jun 19, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 7:18 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After arriving in Texas towns like San Antonio, many of these asylum-seekers continue their journeys north. For some, it's much farther north. Portland, Maine, is more than 2,000 miles from the southern border. There, the newcomers join large communities of African immigrants. And Portland provides aid to asylum-seekers though the recent arrivals are taxing social services. Robbie Feinberg of Maine Public Radio takes us there.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: At a recent press conference, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling called this current wave of families seeking asylum our future. The state is grappling with an aging population.

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ETHAN STRIMLING: We need to do everything we can to make sure that when they arrive, they are stable and that they as quickly as possible are able to get on their feet and start supporting their families and contributing to our economy.

FEINBERG: But the influx has stressed the city, which didn't have enough room and shelters to house the many newcomers who arrived last week. So it was forced to convert a minor league sports arena into a makeshift emergency shelter for more than 200 asylum-seekers.

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FEINBERG: Inside, cots line the floor next to rows of tables and chairs. Volunteers offer food and health supplies. Some translate and build arts and crafts projects with the young children running across the floors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I need, like, six pieces of paper more - mucho paper.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We have a whole stack.

FEINBERG: Two asylum seekers named Filipe and Mireille with their four young children near several cots they pushed together to create a space for their family. They didn't want their last names used to protect their privacy. The family says they arrived in Portland after a nearly five-month journey from their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through a translator, Mireille says the family was forced to flee violent militias and civil unrest. They flew to Ecuador, then walked across Central America to reach the United States.

MIREILLE: (Through interpreter) We spent five days with no food for the children at all, and all the food we had brought was finished.

FEINBERG: Filipe says they pushed themselves to keep going, drinking sips of juice to maintain their energy. They'd carry the children on their back, he says, traverse rivers and walk along teetering paths through the mountains of Panama.

FILIPE: (Through interpreter) I can't advise anyone to come. I just thank the eternal God for the grace to get me here.

FEINBERG: When they finally reached the U.S.-Mexico border, Filipe says they waited in lines for more than two months to finally cross. After the months of walking, the waiting and the bus ride from San Antonio, they arrived in Portland last week. And despite his uncertain future, Filipe describes his situation at the emergency shelter as paradise. He hopes to work as a driver here like he did in his home country.

FILIPE: (Through interpreter) I was thinking, what could I do to - you know, what could I wish for in life, and this is what I wished for. I really thank you so much.

FEINBERG: Immigrant communities and advocacy groups have worked with the city to volunteer and get supplies to the newcomers, everything from diapers to snacks. And donations have poured into a city-run fund raiser - $350,000 so far. But Portland City Councillor Justin Costa told Governor Janet Mills at a public meeting last week that the city still faces a long-term challenge of how to house and aid these migrant families in the months ahead.

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JUSTIN COSTA: We don't operate that number of beds. We don't operate that number of facilities to be able to accommodate this. So I think that that's the next step that we are going to need to address.

FEINBERG: Mills told city leaders that the state hopes to help out. She said that these migrants have endured brutality and bloodshed, and the people of Maine have a proud tradition of caring for their neighbors. For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.