Mbemba Rey stands with family Wednesday on Chestnut Street outside the City of Portland Family Shelter. Rey, who does not speak English, was hesitant to share his story with a French-speaking reporter, but said he is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and traveled through Central America to reach the United States. Rey said he arrived in Portland on Tuesday. Press Herald staff photo by Ben McCanna

LEWISTON — Portland is experiencing an influx of migrants that some worry could spread into Lewiston.

On Tuesday, Portland City Manager Jon Jennings set up an emergency shelter to accommodate more than 200 asylum seekers heading to the city from the South. As Jennings prepared to get the emergency shelter staffed, he said he would reach out to surrounding communities for assistance in handling the unexpected influx.

If Jennings has Lewiston in mind, there could be problems.

“We have not had any direct contact with the folks in Portland and, so far, have not seen any impact from the recent arrivals there,” Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said Thursday. “We are monitoring the situation; however, at the moment, our housing market is fairly tight with few vacancies and, as you know, the city does not operate a public shelter.

“In addition, we do not have a community fund available like Portland does, so we do not provide support for asylum seekers until they have formally applied for asylum and become eligible for General Assistance.”

Lewiston homeless shelters have been monitoring the situation in Portland. One of those shelters, St. Martin de Porres, will be closing for a short period in a couple of weeks and would not be available to take in any of the refugees.

“I’ve no doubt we are going to see some of them come up this way,” said Jimi Cutting, house attendant at St. Martin. “We have our annual shutdown coming up on July 1, so it’s not something we have to face right away. I foresee Hope Haven getting the majority of them, as they can accommodate families.”

The Rev. John Robbins, director of Hope Haven Gospel Mission, could not be reached for comment Thursday night. At St. Martin de Porres, Cutting said he did not know whether any plans were in place to deal with waves of immigrants, should they be sent to Lewiston.

“I have not had the chance to discuss it with the boss yet at all,” he said, “to see what happened during the earlier 2000s, the last time it happened.”

Cutting was referring to the year 2001, when waves of immigrants coming to Lewiston caused a scramble for housing, protests and political bickering.

In 2002, Laurier Raymond, mayor of Lewiston at the time, wrote an open letter to leaders of the Somali community asking them to slow their migration to the city. At the time, more than 1,000 Somalis had moved to Lewiston in less than 18 months, and more were on the way.

Some residents appreciated Raymond’s handling of the refugee matter, while others condemned him as racist.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier said Thursday night she had not had any discussions about the matter with city administrators in Portland.

Portland’s refugee crisis has been the source of debate on social media since the news broke earlier in the week.

By the supper hour Thursday, the Sun Journal Facebook post about the issue in Portland had drawn nearly 600 comments from readers. The overwhelming majority of those who weighed in demanded Maine help its own homeless, unemployed and military veterans before spending more money on refugees.

“They’re making a mockery of the asylum process,” wrote Kevin Pouliot of Biddeford. “It’s not meant to be for economic reasons. Are we supposed to take in every poor person on the planet? If we did then America would be no different than the countries they’re fleeing from.”

“We already have homeless vets and homeless people here as it is,” wrote Laura Mae of Lewiston. “Why do we have to help others before our people here?”

As of Thursday night, it was unclear whether the state General Assistance program will cover the basic needs of housing refugees or if the costs will fall entirely on Portland taxpayers.

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