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Sanford continues attracting new immigrant families, one year after initial asylum seeker arrivals

Quina Nunes, left, helps prepare a potluck dinner at the North Parish Church earlier this month. Nunes worked in Sanford as a case manager until earlier this year, helping the new families resettle.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Quina Nunes, left, helps prepare a potluck dinner at the North Parish Church earlier this month. Nunes, originally from Angola, worked in Sanford as a case manager until earlier this year, helping the new families resettle.

One year ago this month, the city of Sanford was caught by surprise when over a hundred asylum seekers, mostly from Central Africa, arrived in search of emergency shelter. After the dust settled, some of the new arrivals began putting down roots, and the city is now trying to manage the challenges and opportunities that come with welcoming new immigrants as more families continue to arrive.

In the kitchen at the North Parish Church in downtown Sanford, Madalena Manuel is directing the final preparations for a 100-person potluck dinner marking one year since asylum seekers began arriving here.

A pot of chicken and peanut stew is simmering on the stovetop. A heaping tray of salt cod and vegetables is bubbling in the oven. Other guests arrive with mac and cheese and beef casseroles.

"[We've got] lots of stuff," Manuel said in Portuguese. "It’s a whole mix of African and American food."

Manuel asked to be identified by her middle names as her asylum case is ongoing.

She and her family, originally from Angola, were among the first to arrive here last spring, after being turned away from shelters in Portland that were already at capacity.

It was a chaotic period in Sanford. Overwhelmed city staff scrambled to determine who was eligible for city services and locate emergency shelter options. Nonprofits rushed to meet basic needs. Some asylum seekers slept outside city hall.

Manuel and her family were placed in a hotel, then got help finding an apartment. One year later, her kids are in school, she’s studying English and applying for jobs, and the has made local friends through her church.

Now, she said she feels like she has her feet under her, and likes it here.

Emerança Mundenga, originally of Angola, prepares food for a potluck at the North Parish Church in Sanford this month. The potluck dinner marked on year since several dozen asylum seekers arrived in Sanford.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Emerança Mundenga, originally of Angola, prepares food for a potluck at the North Parish Church in Sanford this month.

While the initial chaos has subsided, more asylum seeker families have arrived over the last year as word about Sanford continued to spread – in some cases, across the globe.

"I had a family who literally had a piece of paper in their hand with my name and my phone number that came with them from Africa through Central America. And they kept it in a waterproof bag," said Jen Davie, a housing navigator with York County Community Action. She said there are now about 60 asylum seeker families in town, totally more than 250 individuals.

Davie has found apartments for many of them, leaning on her connections as a lifelong Sanford resident. Even that has its limits, though, amid a finite supply of rentals.

"Realistically," Davie said, "We're looking at a six to 12 month waiting period for housing."

But Davie said the new families can help address another local shortage: labor. She says more than half the families she works with are now employed.

"It's going to have a positive impact, I think that we have, in the last generation, lost a workforce," she said.

But because asylum seekers must wait months before becoming eligible to work under federal law, city manager Steven Buck said it has strained the General Assistance program.

Prior to the pandemic, Buck said the city budgeted about $150,000 per year for GA.

This year, it’s budgeting $1.3 million. Seventy percent of that will be reimbursed by the state, but Buck said it's still unsustainable.

"General Assistance is supposed to be a program of last resort. What I find though, is it's being used as a program of first resort," Buck said.

Families wait inside Sanford city hall on Monday for an appointment with the General Assistance office. City officials say Sanford is "overwhelmed" trying to meet demand.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Families wait inside Sanford city hall in early May, 2023 for an appointment with the General Assistance office. City officials at the time said Sanford was "overwhelmed" trying to meet demand.

Buck said the city has had to move money from other departments and raise taxes to cover the gap. And while Buck said the city council did not encounter strong local pushback to those decisions, he said Sanford is being forced to foot the bill for what he views as federal mismanagement of immigration and the border.

"It's a federal issue," he said. "I still see this as a federal issue. But it drills all the way down to the local impact."

Schools have also needed to make adjustments, said Steve Bussiere, the district's superintendent, as they absorb dozens of new students with intensive English language learning needs.

"We've been stretched this spring with the new families that have come in because they've continued to come in," Bussiere said.

He said the district has trained staff on instructing multilingual students, translated school material, and hired additional staff.

One year after the initial arrivals, Bussiere said the district is better equipped. And he's happy to see some of the new immigrant students getting involved in sports and extracurriculars.

"We are starting to see [...] what I call true, genuine integration," he said.

The potluck supper featured African and American dishes, and brought together new arrivals and longtime residents.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
The potluck supper featured African and American dishes, and brought together new arrivals and longtime residents.

At the North Parish Church potluck dinner, Gauthier Ilembe was waiting in line to fill his plate.

An educator from the Congo, Ilembe arrived in Sanford last spring, after being turned away from shelters in Portland and Lewiston.

He now lives in an apartment with his wife and two children, and landed a job with a landscaping company.

"I'm very comfortable," he said, speaking in French. "I really feel at home."