A city that opened its doors to asylum seekers has come to regret it

When we think about an overflow of immigrants and strained resources for dealing with them, most conversations deal with the southern border. This story, however, takes place nearly as far from there as you can get in America. We’re talking about Portland, Maine. It’s a beautiful city (we took a vacation there last summer) and it has a lot to offer visitors. But Portland has also been known for its generous policy toward immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. They set up programs to provide housing in shelters and set aside funds to support them, along with a list of attorneys willing to do pro bono work on their claims.

Unfortunately for them, the word spread quickly that Portland was an excellent destination for those looking to flee to America and they began arriving in large numbers. Primarily coming from African nations, they have now overwhelmed the shelters and are drying up the available funds to help them. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)

Maine’s largest city, population about 67,000, is now struggling with an influx of asylum seekers, to the point where a local official is alerting shelters in other parts of the country to discourage people from heading here.

“The word is out there that our community is open to that population and has some assistance programs,” said David MacLean, administrator of Portland’s Social Services Division. “Our local resources are not able to keep up.”

Asylum seekers, who are primarily from African countries, now make up 90% of the people living in Portland’s city-run family shelter and overflow shelter, where new arrivals sleep on mats. A city fund that assists with necessities is dwindling fast, and pro-bono lawyers are overwhelmed with cases, Mr. MacLean said.

This is a very different story than the ones we hear about on the Mexican border. Very few of Portland’s guests are illegal immigrants. Most are here following State Department guidelines for those seeking asylum. When the program first began it seemed to work out fairly well. It’s a fairly balanced program, and those getting this housing and aid have to do work for the city as a condition of participation. But now it’s estimated that 65% to 70% of more than 1,000 people currently getting public assistance are noncitizen asylum seekers.

The shelters are running out of space and some new arrivals sleep on mats on the floors. Others are outdoors. And unlike southern California, Texas or Arizona, the weather in the winter is far from gentle. The funds the city spends on the program are being strained to their limits and they require frequent subsidiary payments from the taxpayers.

So what’s the lesson here? America remains a generous nation that’s willing to help those who are truly in need provided they follow the rules. But once the word gets out that the doors are open, you can quickly be overwhelmed. We already know that the immigration courts serving the southern border are months or years behind schedule and the housing available for detainees and asylum seekers are bursting at the seams. That can happen anywhere, including places like Portland. And while it may be painful to admit, there are limits even to our generosity.