Such a Disgrace: How Ethan Strimling Betrayed the People of Portland

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Summer in Maine — Quebecois in speedos, “Massholes” going back to their summer houses, crowded beaches…and hundreds of African migrants bussed in from San Antonio, Texas? In surely one of the most peculiar quirks of modern mass migration, these Angolans and Congolese had taken the circuitous route from central Africa to Brazil to Ecuador to Mexico to San Antonio, Texas and finally Portland, Maine. This amounts to a bare minimum of 11,264 miles traveled “as the crow flies,” and as much of the route was by land, it was surely much more. As ostensible refugees, this naturally begs a couple of questions, namely: how can they afford to travel such distances with no income and just the clothes on their backs? How are they able to plan such a logistically-demanding trip? Why do they have international media and legal contacts?

Coincidentally, just after calls in the media went out that Maine and neighboring New Hampshire were too old, too white, and in need of diversification and labor, a mass influx arrived just in the nick of time to save the state with the nation’s lowest crime rate and an unemployment rate below the national average from its homogeneous milquetoast self. As Kate Taylor wrote in her June 23rd piece for the New York Times entitled, “Maine Needed New, Young Residents. African Migrants Began Arriving by the Dozens.”:

Through the winter, the families streamed into Portland, bringing stories of violence and persecution in their home countries in central Africa. Portland’s shelter for homeless families soon filled to capacity, so the city put mats on the floor of a Salvation Army gym for 80 more people. Then that, too, wasn’t enough. This month, 250 migrants from Africa arrived in this northeastern city of roughly 67,000 residents in the span of just a week, overflowing the overflow space and forcing Portland to hastily convert a basketball arena into an emergency shelter. Urgent calls went out for interpreters who could speak French, Portuguese and Lingala, a language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. City Council meetings were given over to grappling with how Portland would pay for all of this — and the possibility that still more migrants might be coming. It is a bit of a mystery in Maine, one of the oldest and whitest states in the country, how Portland has become a focal point for a sudden surge of migrants.

A mystery indeed.

The Situation

“If [Trump] wants to send more immigrants our way, bring them on.”-Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling in April

What exactly is Ethan Strimling’s game here? Surely the people of Portland elected him to serve their interests, not raise their taxes, overwhelm the city’s staff and infrastructure, and upend their way of life. I think it’s fair to ask whose interests Strimling really serves, especially since he has a re-election coming up. The people deserve answers.

According to the major media outlets, the influx of African migrants into Portland began “unexpectedly” on June 9th. There appears to be a disconnect, however. Catholic Charities was surely aware, for they provided the bus tickets for the migrants to get from San Antonio to Portland. The migrants themselves were certainly made aware once they arrived in Texas, if they didn’t already have Portland in mind as their final destination:

Gloire Kikweta, 24, who came from Congo with his wife and two children — the younger of whom was born in Brazil on their way here…said he did not have a plan of where to go in the United States, but when he was in San Antonio, African immigrants there advised him to go to Portland, telling him that it was an aging city that needed more people, and that it was safe. Vincent Mbala, 32, who is also from Congo, and came with his wife and three children, said that he learned through internet research that Maine provided financial support for asylum seekers. Maine is unusual in providing general assistance, for up to two years, to immigrants who have valid visas or who have applied for asylum… Portland also has what local officials believe is the only municipal fund in the country that provides support to asylum seekers before they submit their applications.

Mayor Strimling must have been aware, at least on some level that people would be arriving, as he effectively called for immigrants in his April response to President Trump. What is disconcerting is that he either deliberately withheld specific information from city employees who would’ve needed to make preparations, or was so concerned with rhetorical posturing that he neglected to avail himself to the available information to make preparations. The third possibility is that he is simply a poor leader and terrible communicator. Nevertheless, the situation has predictably become a disaster. As Chloe Teboe and Samantha York report:

In an email to Portland City Councilors on Monday, June 10, [Portland City Manager Jon] Jennings expressed his concern, writing that on Sunday, 39 people from nine different families arrived unannounced. At that point, the shelter remained full with 42 families, totaling 124 individuals… Jennings also said that the City Manager in San Antonio had told him that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had changed its policy as of June 4 for asylum seekers. Now, they’re able to go to a point of destination in the U.S. without verifying a sponsor. He also told Jennings that Portland should expect about 150 more asylum seekers arriving soon…That number was updated…later Tuesday evening during a meeting for the City Council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee. The topic of discussion was funding for the CSF. Right now (June 12th), the fund is $86,000 over the original $200,000 budget.

A large number of the migrants have had to be housed in the city’s Expo, where the Boston Celtics’ minor league basketball affiliate has its home games. Despite the cavalier attitude of Mayor Strimling and Governor Janet Mills, who tell the state’s residents there is “no downside” — Strimling rhetorically asks, “If we have discovered the magic wand that will bring young families to Portland to help us build the next generation, why would we want to stop that, especially when it costs us so little money?” — the situation is being described as “a very critical emergency.” With taxpayers already footing the bill for migrants’ police detail, interpreters, medical services, food, housing, and other costs and the city already way over budget, it would appear that it does not “cost us so little money.” The city has estimated a cost of approximately $1.4 million to provide housing vouchers and other types of support to the migrants currently in the Expo — and this is assuming no more arrive, which appears highly unlikely.

At the end of June, Portland city councilors already had to re-appropriate $2.6 million in funds to provide General Assistance benefits for asylum seekers throughout the city. In Portland, asylum seekers primarily from African countries constitute 90% of the people living in city-run family and overflow shelters. In an interview with a local CBS affiliate, San Antonio’s assistant city manager, Dr. Colleen Bridger, stated, “The plan was 350 of [the migrants] would travel from San Antonio to Portland…When we reached out to Portland, they said please don’t send us anymore. We’re already stretched way beyond our capacity.” This does not sound like a situation with no downside. In fact, it’s safe to wonder if there is any upside. Let’s also not forget that the World Health Organization recently declared the Ebola outbreak in the Congo — where many of these people come from — an international emergency. From an article by Brian Lonergan:

Normally, asylum seekers are subject to a health check and quarantine if necessary before entering the U.S. However, Acting Homeland Security Director Kevin McAleenan recently admitted that, because of the overflow at the border, thousands of border crossers and illegal immigrants are being released into the country every week without undergoing tests for diseases. Given these factors, a potentially deadly outbreak of Ebola in the United States seems almost inevitable.

Strimling’s recklessness puts us all at risk.

The present issues in Portland compound those the city’s been grappling with for years now. Two-thirds of the 1,000 people receiving general assistance in Portland in January 2019 were asylum seekers. In just the month of September 2018, Portland paid over $125,000 in General Assistance aid to 273 asylum seekers. For Maine, a report published by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) estimated that the state and local governments spent $41 million on services for individuals residing in the state without legal permission. As reported in the Portland Press Herald, for the first 11 months of fiscal year 2014, Portland provided roughly $3 million in General Assistance to 522 households whose asylum applications were still pending. That figure is an increase from 312 households and $1.8 million in General Assistance expenditures in fiscal year 2013 — and nearly triple fiscal year 2011. Maine taxpayers spend more than $19 million a year for ESL (English as a second language) instruction, an increase of more than 100 percent in just 10 years.

Then there’s this, from a 2016 Salon piece:

Portland, Maine had the second largest rise in rental rates in the U.S. Rents rose 17.4%, the median rent in Portland rising to $1582, more than much larger Philadelphia and Chicago. With many hundreds of new families relocating to the city every year, a housing shortage has worsened, and the rent increases have driven the working class out of town in droves. Portland’s vacancy rate is near zero. Meanwhile shelters for the homeless are overflowing with citizens unable to compete with newcomers who consider the $1600 rents cheap by their former standards. The city has been struggling to come up with workable options to increase affordable housing without impacting Portland’s “livability.” Meanwhile, as rents have increased 40% in the past five years, Mayor Ethan Strimling has acknowledged that there was a $500 gap between what people make in Portland and what they can afford to pay for housing.

Local and state officials say that Maine will look very different by 2050. Southern Maine, according to the State Planning Office, will become so urbanized that it will essentially be an extension of Boston. 27% of the state’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 33% of its bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. In spite of these serious issues and others such as the homelessness and opioid epidemics, Governor Mills has decided to further relax restrictions on General Assistance to allow more asylum-seekers to claim benefits from the over-burdened state and a populace which already has the third-highest tax burden in the country. As Brian Lonergan writes:

While local media are hailing the influx as an “opportunity” that will improve the community, the sentiment is not unanimous. Former Gov. Paul LePage blasted his successor, Janet Mills, for encouraging the migration and ignoring the needs of citizens in Maine who are struggling. “The State of Maine has a responsibility to care for our elderly, homeless, and disabled who’ve been left behind before we can address the needs of newcomers,” he said.

Further, the homelessness problem could be significantly exacerbated if housing is not found for the migrants by the August 15th deadline for the closure of the Portland Expo. The knock-on effect so far has seen communities such as Bath, Brunswick, Buxton, Gorham, and Yarmouth strong-armed into taking migrants as a consequence of Portland Mayor Strimling’s unilateral call for immigrants backed by party leadership at the state level. Strimling has asked the neighboring city of Westbrook to pay the full cost of housing some of the migrant over-flow, slicing the stone to draw blood.

And the plot thickens: it appears Strimling may have been deliberately spreading misinformation, including deceiving the migrants themselves. As Randy Billings reports:

An interpreter who works for the city expressed concern to her superiors about comments Strimling allegedly made to a group of 30 or so people last week. Current city policy states that if an individual or family refuses to accept housing found and vetted by their case manager then they can no longer use the shelter. But staff said Strimling’s comments ran counter to that policy, an allegation Strimling firmly denied… At one point, Councilor Belinda Ray, who withdrew from the mayor’s race last month, threatened to censure Strimling, though no motion was made to do so. Ray said the “misinformation” was the real reason the council was meeting. “We have a member of this body that has been spreading misinformation about the city policy and it is putting people in peril of becoming homeless,” Ray said.

Of perhaps greater concern, however, is that the migrants themselves appear to be dictating relocation policy. As a matter of course, refugees are typically less concerned with plotting a perfect 12,000-mile journey with an indeterminate source of funds than with escaping persecution alive.

Something about this whole situation is very suspicious, but as usual our concerns are met with silence if not hostility from our elected officials. Their arrogance and blatant disregard for our safety and security is deeply troubling, but it is a pattern we’ve seen continuously repeated. Why was the decision to take these people in and raise taxes to pay for them not put to a vote? Why do we have no say in crucial decisions that affect all of us — especially when such rash decisions will also impact the future of our children as well?

The people deserve a voice. If Strimling, Mills, and the rest will not do what they were elected to do in representing the will of the people, then they must be summarily voted out of office and replaced with officials who will.

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