Portland is more than 2,000 miles from the southern U.S. border, but the city found itself in the middle of the national immigration debate this week.

Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said on her broadcast Wednesday, “I don’t think the left … realizes what sort of impact their insane policies are having on the real middle-class working Americans.”

Conservative commentators such as Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Laura Ingraham and Stuart Varney seized on a surge in the number of people escaping persecution and violence in Central Africa and coming to Maine’s largest city to seek asylum.

The Maine Sunday Telegram reported on the trend in December, including the account of one family’s arduous escape from Angola through Central America and Mexico to the southern U.S. border. A story about Portland’s asylum seekers appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week, catching the attention of national conservative pundits.

Critics lamented the trend as an example of liberal policies backfiring on citizens, which prompted Portland’s mayor and some city councilors to respond that immigrants are good for the city and remain welcome.

“I don’t think the left … realizes what sort of impact their insane policies are having on the real middle-class working Americans,” Ingraham said during Wednesday’s broadcast of her program, “The Ingraham Angle.” “Take for instance Portland, Maine. It’s pretty far from the border so they shouldn’t be impacted, right, by the illegal immigration crisis? Well, wrong.”

LEPAGE REITERATES HIS STANCE

Former Gov. Paul LePage appeared on Ingraham’s show Wednesday and repeated claims he often made during his two terms as governor. LePage said that providing government aid to noncitizens comes at the expense of the elderly and disabled. “People who have lived their lives in Maine are now without services in the aging years or with their disabilities,” LePage said.

Portland has long been a destination for people in need because of the city’s social services and economic opportunities. A city-run shelter for single adults regularly exceeds its 154-person capacity, so officials are looking at increasing its capacity. On a recent night, 257 people sought emergency shelter.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling sent out an email in which he said, “I will never turn my back on my immigrant neighbors no matter what Fox News says.”

And the biggest surge in demand has been at the family shelter, where in December roughly 90 percent of the people were asylum seekers, city officials said. Asylum seekers also account for 63 percent of the 1,168 people receiving General Assistance, a last-resort safety net for food, shelter and other needs.

“This is happening all across New England,” Ingraham said. “But Portland brought it on itself and people are going to be left to pick up the pieces.”

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers from sub-Saharan countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola are coming to Portland because the city has an established immigrant community and because it has programs to help support asylum seekers while their applications are being processed by a strained immigration system. And, unlike most states, Maine provides emergency financial assistance to asylum seekers through the General Assistance program that is funded by the state and communities such as Portland.

Most asylum seekers in Maine enter the country legally, either on a temporary visa or by presenting at a port of entry and declaring their intent to seek asylum. They often exhaust their financial resources, and sometimes endure a long and dangerous journey through South and Central America to get here. So when they arrive in Portland, they often report to the city-run family shelter, which is over capacity and often uses thin mats on floors at a local gymnasium.

Asylum seekers are prohibited by federal law from working until at least six months after filing their applications for permission to stay. And it can take years before their asylum cases are decided.

A POINT OF PRIDE FOR CITY

The national criticism drew strong reactions from Portland leaders, who have long promoted the city as open and welcoming to all. In addition to reaffirming their support for asylum seekers through General Assistance, education and workforce development programs, the mayor and some councilors are considering asking voters to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections.

Mayor Ethan Strimling reacted to the criticism by sending out an email with the subject line “Attacked by Fox News,” and asking for donations to his anticipated re-election campaign.

“I will never turn my back on my immigrant neighbors no matter what Fox News says,” Strimling said. “Will you stand with my (sic) by making a donation today?”

Ingraham was perplexed about why African immigrants would come to Portland, describing the situation as “wild.” Strimling noted that they come for economic opportunity. He said they are escaping violence and persecution with the hopes of finding jobs so they can pay taxes, start businesses, raise their families and be a part of the community.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who is trying to unseat Strimling as mayor this year, issued a statement in response to LePage’s comments.

MAINE’S WORKER SHORTAGE

Thibodeau highlighted the positive economic impacts of new Mainers, citing a report commissioned by the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce that was released over the summer. That report showed that immigrants contributed $1.2 billion to the Greater Portland metro region’s gross domestic product, paid $133 million in federal taxes and $62 million in state taxes; contributed $57.3 million to Social Security and $14.7 million to Medicare; and helped create or preserve over 1,100 local manufacturing jobs.

While Ingraham expressed shock that the state’s population growth has been attributed to immigration, Thibodeau said such new Mainers are needed to address workforce issues in Maine, which has the oldest population in the nation.

“We simply cannot afford an ‘us versus them’ approach,” Thibodeau said. “New Mainers are part of the solution to filling our workforce needs, diversifying our schools, creating good-paying jobs, and growing our economy. Here in Portland, we are proud of our diversity and proud to call one another ‘neighbor,’ no matter where our neighbors are from, who they worship, or who they love.”

Thibodeau’s message included a link for people to donate to his campaign, although it was not a central part of his response.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who announced her mayoral candidacy Thursday, also pushed back on the criticism.

“I don’t watch Fox News and I don’t follow Paul LePage,” Ray said, before noting the importance of welcoming immigrants. “It’s worth making an investment on the front end to help get them settled because they will be a tremendous asset to the community going forward. It would be helpful for the state or federal government to add some support.”

City Councilor Pious Ali, an immigrant from Ghana, criticized LePage’s lack of leadership in an interview. He noted how LePage told Ingraham about the poor housing conditions of immigrants in Portland, saying it reminded him of the poor conditions of his youth.

“He was the governor. He should have done something about that and he didn’t,” Ali said. “It shows failure of leadership on his end.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.