Lawmakers are calling for a state-coordinated effort to help Maine cities and towns on the front lines of a surge in asylum seekers.
A group of asylum seekers speak with Mike Guthrie (in blue), director of Portland's family shelter, and an interpreter, in colorful suit on Wednesday afternoon after disembarking from a bus from Sanford. Guthrie told the group the city could not promise shelter space for single adults in the group. Credit: Ari Snider / Maine Public

SANFORD, Maine — Last week, one official punctuated an emergency meeting by saying this southern Maine city was being “overrun” by more than 100 African asylum seekers who arrived over the past week. Friday was more normal.

Fourteen children and their families — primarily from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — met with Sanford School Department officials in the high school’s cafe to start the process of enrolling kids in the school system, following another group of 23 asylum seekers who enrolled earlier this month in the district, which has six schools and more than 3,000 students.

“Any new student to Sanford, regardless of where they are from, we want them to succeed,” Superintendent Matt Nelson said.

Maine has become a popular destination for hundreds of asylum seekers in recent years, due to a complicated mix of state and national policies. Most of the newcomers have settled in Greater Portland, so the influx caught Sanford off-guard during a housing shortage. Lawmakers are calling for legal changes and a state-coordinated effort to help cities on the front lines.

“It’s so inhumane,” Rep. Lucas Lanigan, R-Sanford, said of the situation. “Mainers want to help, but there’s no resources for us to help with.”

Nationally, the number of asylum seekers hit record levels last year. More are expected after pandemic-era Title 42 policies that allowed the U.S. to turn away asylum seekers on public health grounds ended Thursday night, even though President Joe Biden has enacted new controls aimed at stopping asylum seekers from entering the country illegally.

Even asylum seekers who came that way are allowed to stay in the country while awaiting backed-up immigration proceedings. Under federal law, they cannot work for at least six months after arriving, which leaves them reliant on state and local General Assistance and charity.

Roughly 130 people of all ages arrived the first week of May in this historic mill town of 22,000 on the Mousam River. Many of their harrowing journeys began by boat to Brazil before eventually reaching the U.S. and coming to Portland, 35 miles away from Sanford.

They are mostly staying in motels closer to the high school and Sanford Regional Technical Center on the outskirts of the city. Interpreters have offered help. Signs in City Hall have instructions for seeking assistance in English, Portuguese and French.

Signs with information in English and Portuguese on how to apply for General Assistance are posted in Sanford City Hall on Friday. More than 100 asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived in Sanford in early May. Credit: Billy Kobin / BDN

Sanford City Manager Steven Buck, who gained attention when he said there appeared to be a coordinated effort to bring families to Sanford, was still trying to determine specifics. But he reported hearing from Portland shelters that “word spread like wildfire” housing was supposedly available in Sanford.

Advocates have not learned all the specifics of how and why these people came to Maine, according to Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a Portland-based group that has provided translators and other services in Sanford, but many of them are “very traumatized.”

“What happened to Sanford could happen to any town,” Chitam said.

The city’s problems would be common elsewhere in southern Maine, which has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic from a housing affordability crisis driven by short supply. Buck spoke Wednesday by phone with officials from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to discuss the state providing contractors to assist with intake of the asylum seekers.

“A large part of that conversation with DHHS was housing, housing, housing, housing,” Buck said. “I can’t find an apartment at any rate here in Sanford to rent. It’s an untenable situation.”

Lawmakers also want the state to raise reimbursements to local governments for General Assistance, which help residents cover basic necessities like rent, food and utilities, from 70 percent to 90 percent, as proposed in a bill this year from Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, in response to state and local expenses jumping to an all-time high of $32 million.

A similar bill would also create a statewide database to track applicants and expenses for the General Assistance program. Sanford officials have cautioned that asylum seekers who receive informal aid from residents could become ineligible for assistance from the Maine towns or cities they first reached if they draw it there. Even so, the aid only helps if they also have housing.

“We have literally no place to put people who are here and want to work,” Sen. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, said.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, the only Democrat in Sanford’s legislative delegation, also said lawmakers should back a statewide “Housing First” approach already used in Portland and sought by Gov. Janet Mills in her revised budget that would provide $80 million to build more affordable housing for Maine workers and families.

Lanigan, the Republican lawmaker who said he has friends opening homes for the asylum seekers to temporarily stay with them, called on the Democratic governor to convene an “asylum summit with all the key players across the state in one room.”

Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said the governor “remains in contact” with Portland, Sanford, other cities and Maine’s congressional delegation over the arrival of asylum seekers. Mills also has boosted funding while in office for legal, educational and housing services for asylum seekers and is watching for effects of federal changes, Goodman noted.

The Maine delegation is also backing several changes, including expediting the work waiver process for asylum seekers. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, is looking to extend Title 42 protections to allow more time for the Biden administration to plan.

Sanford has welcomed those seeking asylum before, Mastraccio added, mentioning Cambodian refugees who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s after fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

“My kids grew up in, really, a pretty diverse place,” she said.

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Billy Kobin

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...