The city of Sanford — population: 22,000 — has been overrun with asylum-seekers who arrived throughout last week seeking General Assistance benefits and free housing, according to city officials. The migrants arrived in private cars, Ubers, and even some vehicles purporting to be DoorDash drivers.
Why did they suddenly show up in Sanford?
City Manager Steve Buck told the Maine Wire two Sanford city residents — unidentified, at present — took it upon themselves to invite asylum-seekers to Sanford. Those individuals went to the Portland Expo building and promised asylum-seeker families better housing and better benefits, but those promises were false.
At 5 p.m. Thursday Sanford City Council members held an emergency meeting to address concerns over the continuing migrant crisis overwhelming the city.
Bused to Sanford in vans by private individuals as well as DoorDash delivery people, migrants unable to speak English were left outside City Hall and the Post Office with no food, water, or housing accommodations.
Migrants continued to arrive over the course of last week and through the weekend, pushing City officials to work late into the night processing new arrivals.
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City Manager Buck gave a presentation before the City Council and the public to provide updated information on the current status of the migrants and the city’s response.
Buck emphasized that Sanford was meeting all of its legal obligations in providing General Assistance benefits to qualified migrants.
All migrants being assisted in Sanford currently are those that have been able to provide adequate documentation of their asylum-seeking status or court date before a federal immigration judge.
In his presentation, Buck provided figures on how many migrants had arrived over the course of last week and their housing status:
- From the end of April through May 5, more than 25 families and more than 100 total men, women and children arrived in Sanford
- 12 families arrived on May 5 alone
- As of May 4, 23 students had been enrolled in Sanford schools
- Housing is reassessed on a week-to-week basis, housing vouchers expire after 7 days, at which point the migrants must reapply
- All emergency qualifications for General Assistance are reassessed on a 30-day basis
How and why did the migrants come to Sanford?
Of primary concern to the City Manager was addressing how the migrants found their way to Sanford in the first place.
Buck revealed that he had learned the names of two Sanford residents that had been actively recruiting migrants to come to Sanford from the Portland Expo Center.
He did not reveal the names of the individuals responsible, but later in the meeting Mayor Becky Brink stated that they were talking with City lawyers to investigate the situation.
“I think some of the people who are doing this are really doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” Brink said. “They’re just misinformed.”
Buck’s assessment indicated that these individuals, as well as other members of charitable and faith-based organizations, solicited migrants to come to Sanford, providing them with transportation and temporary housing.
They led the migrants staying at the Portland Expo to believe that they would be able to find better housing in hotel rooms in Sanford.
This misinformation resulted in a large number of migrants electing to travel from Portland to Sanford, though already being registered for services in Portland.
Migrants are not allowed to register for General Assistance benefits in multiple cities.
On Monday, when City Manager Buck asked a room full of migrants how many of them had been registered for services in Portland, every hand in the room went up.
These migrants were disqualified from receiving assistance in Sanford, and were told they would have to go back to Portland.
Buck also mentioned that earlier that day he had received a directive from the Biden Administration entitled “Migrant Busing Toolkit For Receiving Cities.”
“When you read down through that I was rather horrified,” Buck said about the directive. “It pushes to the NGOs, that’s the directive. Get them into the hands of the NGOs as rapidly as possible.”
How is Sanford handling the crisis?
City Manager Buck stated that Sanford General Assistance had hit its capacity for all available sheltering options and essential services.
This means that in order to apply for housing vouchers through General Assistance, the migrants themselves are tasked with finding their own housing options which they can then submit to the city.
“We’re tapped. We’re out. We’ve hit capacities that our staff can no longer keep up with,” Buck said. “We’ve been overrun.”
After outlining the overwhelming situation, Buck voiced his frustration about how the “organized effort continues to bring vans and buses of people here.”
The City of Sanford allocated a budget of $155,000 for General Assistance services for this fiscal year.
They have now spent $483,724, exceeding their budget by over $320,000.
Though the State provides a 70 percent reimbursement to municipal General Assistance spending, Buck stated that these payments from the State were still pending with just 8 weeks remaining in the fiscal year.
Members of the City Council expressed their support for LD 1732, “An Act to Expand the General Assistance Program,” which would raise State reimbursement from 70 to 90 percent.
What help is Sanford getting from local, State, and Federal partners?
Several local organizations are assisting in a coordinated effort to alleviate the burden placed on Sanford by this recent influx of migrants.
A leader of one of these organizations, Mufalo Chitam of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, had previously advised Sanford City officials not to exceed their capacity.
She also warned them against making it easy for the migrants to transfer their services from one city to another, as this will result in migrants continually going from community to community in search of better housing and services.
City Councilman Jonathan Bartell stated in the meeting that he had spoken with State Representatives in Augusta who claimed that the Mills Administration had additional details on the individuals and groups responsible for transporting the migrants to Sanford.
“Apparently the Mills administration has some details on these folks, but they haven’t percolated that down to our representative. So I think that’s not a good situation,” Bartell said. “Hopefully we can remedy some of that.”
Buck claimed Sanford is receiving no Federal or State assistance, including no help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides assistance to other larger cities in Maine.
Buck did state that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are considering freeing up relief funds for cities affected by asylum seekers on a 30-day basis.
The City Manager is also seeking a federal response to increased border crossing numbers.
The CBP currently processes upwards of 8,000 asylum seekers per day at the southern border, and that number is expected to double come Thursday when Title 42 expires.
Title 42 is a COVID-era provision which allows CBP agents to expel asylum seekers back to their country of origin for public health reasons.
It was used during the Trump Administration and is still being used by the Biden Administration to help manage illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Thursday, CBP agents will once again be legally mandated to allow migrants claiming asylum-seeking status who illegally enter the U.S. to stay and to register for an asylum hearing before an immigration judge.
The number of migrants crossing the southern border is projected to increase tremendously following Title 42’s expiration.
“What does that look like for us?” Buck asked.
Frustrated with the state and federal response, Buck expressed his concerns that Sanford was already taking in migrants at a volume they are unable to handle.
Already under immense pressure, an exhausted Sanford City Council fears this recent wave of migrants dropped into their city is just the beginning of what could be an even more arduous summer.