Hundreds of protesters gathered near the Portland Expo Center on Sunday to show support for asylum seekers who have arrived in Maine in the last month.
Organizers say the event was designed as a response to another protest organized by critics of Gov. Janet Mills, and of the state’s pledge to provide financial aid to asylum seekers, although that event was ultimately canceled. The group, called “Protest Mills” on Facebook, did not return requests for comment.
Activist Hamdia Ahmed, the initial organizer of the counter-protest, said in a Facebook post that the event was being held because “A group of white supremacist [sic] are planning to harass the new Mainers and Governor Janet Mill outside of the Portland Expo.”
Ahmed said she doesn’t believe that the governor’s spending plan was the actual focus of that original protest.
“At first that other group were saying, like, that they were protesting against Janet Mills and her spending, but then the fact that they chose the Expo location and then saying, like, all these horrible things on their social media about our new Mainers and immigrants, and calling them names like that just send a sign that … it wasn’t just about Janet Mills, it was also about the asylum seekers that are sheltered here,” Ahmed said.
To show support for the asylum seekers, rally-goers created signs that read “Welcome,” and a few dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Attendees huddled in the shade and listened to several speakers, most of whom were immigrants, speak to the crowd about the importance of supporting asylum seekers.
Several also mentioned the increased number of ICE raids check points, and the migrant detention facilities at the border.
At the Holy Donut across the street, a group of Jewish activists involved with the movement “Never Again” made signs and sang songs in support of asylum seekers before joining the other counter-protesters.
“The main goal is just for our neighbors to feel welcomed, and … to send the signal that it’s not all right to harass asylum seekers. It’s not all right to harass … any kind of immigrant. And that Portland is a welcoming, welcoming place and we won’t stand for any kind of hate,” said Adam Zuckerman of the group Jewish Activists of Maine.
”We’ve heard so many stories about our families fleeing violence in Europe and other places around the world, of the Holocaust, of the diaspora, and those lessons are such an integral part of who we are as Jews,” Zuckerman said. “So it’s really important for us to make sure that other people aren’t oppressed as well, that we all came here as immigrants to this country, fleeing violence and now there are other folks, our new neighbors, who are doing that as well.”
Altogether about 200 people showed up at the event. Hamdia Ahmed said she was not surprised by the turnout. “I was expecting this. Us people in Maine, we are very welcoming, and there’s great people here and this was what I was expecting to happen today.”
More than 290 asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa have arrived in Portland in the last month. Many are beginning the process of finding more permanent places to live.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.
Related: The story of immigration in Maine goes back centuries