December 04, 2019
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New wave of asylum seekers from Central Africa ‘not abnormal’ for Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A child plays a game on a phone at the emergency shelter setup inside the Portland Expo building this summer. A new wave of Angolan and Congolese asylum seekers began to arrive to the city Friday, after roughly 450 were processed this summer.

PORTLAND, Maine — The first 28 of a new wave of migrants from Central Africa, most of them families, arrived in Portland by bus Friday morning. The full number expected to arrive is unknown, and is seen as a ripple after roughly 450 Angolan and Congolese migrants, many of them fleeing political violence, arrived to Portland this summer.

But while this summer’s influx was deemed a crisis — and garnered national attention — social service officials said that Friday’s arrivals are more in line with what Portland typically sees.

“I don’t think anyone is looking at this as any sort of emergency situation,” said Judy Katzel, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities. “This number is not an abnormally large number. It’s more like what the city usually does.”

While officials have scrambled to accommodate the new arrivals with little notice, Portland services do not appear to be strained. The 28 migrants arriving Friday morning were placed into temporary housing in Scarborough, and the city plans to use any of five available buildings to temporarily shelter migrants yet to arrive while social service agencies seek permanent residency for them.

Space is available in the warming center, with a capacity of 35, attached to the city-run family shelter on Chestnut Street, a city spokesperson said. When that space fills, the city plans to use space at the Salvation Army and YMCA, each with capacities of 75 people. The Oxford Street Shelter may also be used for single adults.

“There was a lot of anxiety created in the city over the summer, and it’s manageable right now,” city manager Jon Jennings said at a press conference Thursday.

The migrants will, however, enter an asylum-seeking process that’s more backed up than usual. The majority of this summer’s arrivals, who were sheltered in the Portland Expo for nearly two months before they were moved to more permanent housing, are still waiting for their cases to be filed with the immigration courts, according to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, or ILAP.

“We have been assisting people with changing their addresses to ensure that they receive their immigration court notices so that they do not miss any hearings and receive in absentia removal orders,” executive director Susan Roche said.

Unlike this summer’s influx, the new migrants do not have the option of staying in the Exposition Building, the home court of the Maine Red Claws basketball team, which started its season last week.

Many of ILAP’s clients are individuals who arrived before this summer, whose cases are still in court, Roche said. A team of 180 pro bono attorneys are representing clients in more than 150 ongoing asylum cases, and ILAP is working to place lawyers with even more cases. Each case takes more than 100 hours to prepare, which Roche estimates adds up to approximately 4,000 hours of donated time over the course of a year, worth close to $1 million.

A grant for nearly $900,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was awarded to Portland in October. City officials said that the money has not been spent or appropriated.

Many migrants are fleeing horrifying political violence in the central region of Grand Kasai, which ramped up in 2016, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo has become one of the most conflicted regions in Africa. Food and nutrition experts estimate that 7.7 million people are food insecure, a 30 percent increase from 2017. A cycle of violence, disease and malnutrition has led to increased calls for international aid, and a 2018 U.N. report said 13.1 million citizens require humanitarian assistance — 60 percent of them people 18 and under.

Portland took in a wave of 448 migrants buses from San Antonio between the first week of June and Aug. 15 — though many later left the city for Canada and elsewhere. The group is legally seeking defensive asylum, and must pass a “credible fear” review as part of the asylum-seeking process.

City health officials in Portland and San Antonio said that the migrants tested negative for infectious diseases, including Ebola, which had appeared in central Africa. An outbreak of chickenpox among those staying in the Expo building was reported in late July.

 



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