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Hundreds of Asylum Seekers Flood Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine, is now housing more than 200 asylum seekers who are fleeing countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They've crossed into the U.S. through the southern border illegally, but they won't be deported because they're trying to escape persecution.

Federal law prevents asylees from applying for work authorization for 180 days after their arrival.

They must also wait, what can be months at a time, for a court to decide that they can permanently live in the U.S.

Asylum seekers who are waiting for that to happen, but who enter the country legally, through ports of entry, are able to apply for general assistance in Maine municipalities.

But Maine state law prevents asylees who cross illegally, like the ones coming to Portland, from getting that assistance.

The result is a multi-layered puzzle for dozens of stakeholders to solve.


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In the interim, Portland has set up hundreds of cots in the Portland Exposition Building as a college dorm is readied for asylees at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus.

Nonprofit charities and for-profit companies have donated enough meals to feed the asylees for the next several weeks, and more than $300,000 has been received by the city in private donations that will be used to support them during their time in Portland.

What happens after that is less clear.

Some of the asylees want to move on to Canada or other places where they have family and friends.

Others want Portland to be their final destination.

City and state staff are now trying to identify the people who want to stay and figure out a long-term solution to feed and house them until their court dates and work authorization.

"Frankly, we need them working right now," said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine's 1st Congressional District, which includes Portland. "The last thing we want people to do is get here, be anxious to work and be held up by paperwork or bureaucracy."

Pingree has re-introduced a bill in Congress that would reduce the time it takes for asylees to get work authorization from 180 days to just 30.

She's also holding a conference call on Wednesday with Republican colleagues and federal agency chiefs about other ways asylees could get to work faster.

At the city level, action is being taken more immediately.

Monday night, the Portland City Council will vote whether or not to keep a budgeted community assistance fund for asylum seekers past July 1.

At the same time, councilors in Westbrook will have a special last-minute meeting after Portland's mayor called asking for help caring for the asylees.

Jerre Bryant, a Westbrook city administrator, says the mayor of his city got a call from Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling last week.

But Bryant says the type of assistance Strimling was looking for Monday afternoon remained unclear, though he hoped to have a better idea of what it would look like by the council's meeting.

"How much is it going to cost us? What's the commitment? How long is the commitment? I have none of those answers," said Bryant, who added that Wesbrook city councilors haven't taken a stance on the asylee issue

Strimling, meanwhile, daid he's been touched by the amount of support surrounding communities have already showed, but he reiterated that the city has a resource crunch in a Monday interview.

"Let's be very clear, it's not like we have more resources than we need," he said. "Everybody stepping up and helping is absolutely important, and I think the governor made that very clear when she said Portland isn't in this alone."

Maine Gov. Janet Mills was in Portland for a late Friday afternoon on the asylee influx.

Strimling says he has spoken to her office about allowing asylees access to the general assistance money they've been barred from getting.

In terms of cost, both Strimling and Portland City Manager Jon Jennings say they don't have an exact estimate for how much the emergency shelter has cost to operate so far.

However, Jennings was critical of Strimling in a Monday press conference, saying Strimling is underplaying the financial price of welcoming the asylees.

Jennings said early intelligence from federal border patrol agents indicates there may not be groups of asylees coming to Portland as large as the ones that are already in the city in the immediate future.

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