For the last few years, we have read too many stories to count about the deplorable conditions for asylum seekers at the border, where hundreds of children have been separated from their families (some of whom still have not been reunited), where at least five children have died in the “protection” of the United States government, and where migrants are being abused, left with too little food and water, weeks without a bath, and where children are asked to care for other children. From the Associated Press:
“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” said Holly Cooper, who co-directs University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic and represents detained youth.
Meanwhile, the NYTimes reported just this week that in communities like St. Cloud Minnesota, there has been a growing backlash from white anti-immigrant activists to refugee resettlement programs in the area, fueled by xenophobic, anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not this way everywhere in America. I know, because I’ve seen the community in my home city of Portland, Maine, come together over the last few weeks to compassionately welcome a large influx of asylum seekers in the most amazing of ways.
People often think of Maine as one of the whitest states in the country, and that is true for most of the state, but in places like Portland (and Lewiston, Maine) we also have a substantial refugee community from Somalia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other sub-Sarahan African nations. The state has welcomed them, and despite the bitter six-month-long winter that feels like 10 months, many have found a home here.
Asylum seekers who arrive in America, however, are typically not eligible for federal or state aid, nor are they allowed to work for six months after filing an asylum application, which leaves them in an untenable situation, unable to care for themselves and incapable of seeking aid from the government. Portland, Maine, however, is one of the very few — if only — municipalities in the country that provides government benefits to asylum seekers.
This has made Portland, the largest city in a very cold, very white state, an unusually attractive destination for migrants from especially Angola and Congo. In the last two weeks, many of the migrants fleeing violence and political upheaval in those countries journeyed 10,000 miles over the course of months, flying or taking a boat to Brazil, trekking thousands of miles through Central America and Mexico, crossing over the American border, and specifically asking to be relocated to Portland. Since June 8th, nearly 300 asylum seekers — all families — have been bussed to Portland from Texas and New Mexico, which may not sound like a lot for a big city, but we’re a tiny one with only a population of 67,000 that is already suffering from a housing shortage. Moreover, the fund that the city put aside to provide benefits to asylum seekers ran out a couple of months ago, and the city has had to replenish it in the meantime, though no one is certain how long it will last.
But Portland is not turning them away, nor is there any resentment about taking them in. In fact, volunteers are picking them up at the bus station. And we’re not putting them in cages or open-air tents, either. The city has opened up our basketball and hockey arena, the Portland Expo, and set up a couple hundred beds for them there.
The city’s response has been insane. Portlanders are haggling over the limited volunteer positions because everyone wants to help, although what is really needed is money for food and supplies, so the city has crowdfunded $400,000, so far. The Maine Immigrants Access Network has been providing legal assistance, while the Congolese Community Association of Maine has been holding meetings with asylum seekers and building relationships with the local police to deal with the new arrivals. While parents are working on forms, the city recreation department is busy keeping their kids occupied. Meanwhile, the minor league baseball team has invited all the families out for a night at the ballpark (while a community member has volunteered to pay for all concessions), and the Children’s Museum is arranging visits for the kids. The park near the Expo center is available to all the migrants, as well as a nearby soccer field.
Coffee by Design, the local coffee chain, is taking donations in all of their locations. Meanwhile, the local soup kitchen, Preble Street, is providing nutritious African meals to the migrants — breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a far cry from what kids are being fed at the border (“oatmeal, a cookie and a sweetened drink in the morning, instant noodles for lunch and a burrito and cookie for dinner”). Elsewhere, Jewish Family Services — the only National Diaper Bank Network participant in Maine — stepped up and began sending diapers, formula, and feminine products to the Expo Center, while they’re also arranging — in a partnership with Huggies — to send an entire tractor-trailer of diapers (over 200,000!) to the asylum seekers, ensuring that they’re all set in that regard for the foreseeable future.
You can imagine what it looks like at the border. This, however, is what it looks like in Portland.
I also encourage you to check out the lovely photos of the emergency shelter from the Portland Press Herald, which illustrates what every willing community in this country is capable of. I feel very fortunate to belong to a city like Portland, which has provided the kind of compassion and support we as a nation should be providing to everyone fleeing political violence and persecution in their home countries. Amid all the other stories about conditions at the border, humanitarian crises, and talk of concentration camps, the stories out of my own community have been incredibly heartening.