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Rural communities in Maine struggle to accommodate asylum-seekers


U.S. officials say they've seen a drop in the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the first few days since the end of Title 42. That was a provision that was used during the pandemic to quickly expel migrants. But one small community in rural Maine is still struggling after more than a hundred asylum-seekers arrived unannounced earlier this month. Ari Snider of Maine Public Radio has the story.

ARI SNIDER, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, dozens of asylum-seekers are waiting inside City Hall in Sanford, Maine, hoping to get housing assistance. Among them is a man named Simphor from Gabon. He and other asylum seekers gave only their first names due to their ongoing immigration cases. Simphor and his wife are among thousands of people from central and southern Africa who have sought refuge in Maine over the last several years, many fleeing violence, political repression and human rights abuses in their home countries. Simphor says he and his wife arrived just days ago in Portland and tried to find shelter there.

SIMPHOR: (Non-English language spoken).

SNIDER: "Everything's full," he says. "There's nowhere to take us in." Simphor says he and his wife paid a stranger to drive them to Sanford, joining dozens of others after word spread that better housing options could be found there. Some had been staying in crowded shelters in Portland. Others, like Simphor, say they were turned away from shelters already at capacity.

SIMPHOR: (Non-English language spoken).

SNIDER: He says, "generally, information passes by word of mouth. And someone said that help could be found in Sanford." What followed is one version of a story playing out across the country, from El Paso to Denver to New York, as city staff and aid groups struggle to support growing numbers of asylum-seekers, who, under federal law, have to wait months before receiving work authorization and whose asylum cases can drag on for years in an oversaturated immigration court system, except in this case, it played out in Sanford, a city of about 20,000 people in a rural corner of southern Maine whose General Assistance Office consists of two employees.

STEVEN BUCK: That office is completely overwhelmed in there. They have a backlog of appointments.

SNIDER: During an emergency city council meeting Tuesday night, city manager Steven Buck said Sanford had placed about a hundred people in temporary shelter in local motels but quickly ran out of space.

BUCK: There's no further capacity for hotel rooms or other housing options here in our community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SNIDER: Some asylum seekers did find their way back to shelters in Portland, but others, including an Angolan man named Landu, said they were stranded.

LANDU: (Non-English language spoken).

SNIDER: "We're going to have to sleep here," he says. "We're going to sleep here on the street. We don't have anywhere to go."

MUFALO CHITAM: What happened in Sanford is unprecedented.

SNIDER: Mufalo Chitam runs the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition. She says as larger service centers run out of shelter space, people will go wherever they think help is available.

CHITAM: And in the heat of the moment, people make decisions - you know, just part of human nature. This is just being human.

SNIDER: And she says the pressure on aid groups and municipalities across the country to respond is likely to grow. In Maine, Chitam is urging greater coordination from the state in managing asylum-seeker resettlement. She says there was nothing unique about Sanford. And as migrants continue to struggle to find housing in Portland and other cities across the country, this type of situation could well happen again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SNIDER: In Portland, an Angolan man named Miguel was directed to put his name on a list for emergency shelter but wasn't optimistic about his prospects.

MIGUEL: (Non-English language spoken).

SNIDER: "It's the same thing," he says. "They're going to say there's no room." That night, Miguel says he ended up sleeping in a parking lot. For NPR News, I'm Ari Snider in Portland, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PHARCYDE SONG, "SHE SAID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Snider - Maine Public