South Portland council: Asylum seekers still welcome, for now

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors Monday embraced a desire to continue using municipal funds to assist asylum seekers, although they expressed concern about spillover from Portland.

Councilors asked to be presented with monthly updated numbers of asylum seekers, to track how many move to the city from neighboring municipalities.

Concern over whether to use city funds to aid asylum seekers comes after a directive from Gov. Paul LePage last year prohibiting state General Assistance reimbursements to municipalities that provide aid to those residents.

The Portland City Council decided in late June to continue supporting asylum seekers for the next year, through a $2.63 million Community Support Fund, which will prevent an estimated 900 people from losing assistance. 

A bill that will allow state reimbursement for asylum seekers, LD 369, was one of nearly 20 still in question this week in the Legislature, in a dispute between the governor and lawmakers over whether LePage inadvertently allowed it to become law when he actually intended to veto the measure.

At the July 6 workshop, while city councilors did not take any action, most expressed a desire to continue supporting the nine documented asylum seekers who live in South Portland. 

Since last July, the city has spent nearly $6,500 of the municipal budget to support asylum seekers that has not been reimbursed by the state, said Kathleen Babeu, director of social services for the city and Cumberland County.

Councilors said they are concerned about the expiration of assistance in Portland.

Babeu said it is “possible” South Portland will see an influx of asylum seekers, but “it’s hard to predict the future.”

“I do have families that come over from Portland, weekly, that talk about wanting to move to South Portland,” she said. 

Councilor Brad Fox said that, regardless, “it’s very important we continue to support these asylum seekers … we can’t just abandon these folks.”

Yet Fox and other councilors recognized that South Portland’s affordable housing is limited. “Anyone who comes to the city will have to have affordable housing, and there’s not a lot of inventory here,” he said. 

City Manager Jim Gailey was charged with providing a monthly progress report to councilors, detailing the number of asylum seekers and where they’re coming from.

Mayor Linda Cohen also urged the council to send a letter to the state’s congressional delegation to “strongly, strongly, urge them to find a better way to shorten this process for people coming into this country that are trying to get settled and go to work.”

For the time being, Cohen said, “The humane thing to do is to help people, but on the other hand, there’s going to be a limit, and if we don’t think there’s going to be spillover from Portland, then we’re kidding ourselves.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.