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A new migrant surge at the border, this one from central Africa

African migrants used a makeshift raft to illegally cross the Suchiate river from Guatemala into Mexico in June.
African migrants used a makeshift raft to illegally cross the Suchiate river from Guatemala into Mexico in June.(Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO — For months, a migrant-services center blocks from the Alamo in downtown San Antonio has been packed with Central American families who have crossed the border in record numbers.

But in recent days, hundreds of migrants from another part of the world have caused city officials already busy with one immigrant surge to scramble on a new and unexpected one. Men, women, and children from central Africa — mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola — are showing up at the United States’ southwest border after embarking on a dangerous, monthslong journey.

Their arrival at the border and at two cities more than 2,100 miles apart — San Antonio and Portland, Maine — has surprised and puzzled immigration authorities and overwhelmed local officials and nonprofit groups. The surge has prompted Portland to turn its basketball arena into an emergency shelter and depleted assistance funds meant for other groups. Officials in both cities have had to reassure the public that fears of an Ebola outbreak were unfounded while also pleading for volunteer interpreters who speak French and Portuguese.

In San Antonio, the city-run Migrant Resource Center has assisted about 300 African migrants who were apprehended at the border and released by the authorities since June 4. Those 300 are just a portion of the overall numbers. Since October 2018, more than 700 migrants from Africa have been apprehended at what has become their main point of entry, the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, a largely rural stretch of Texas border that is nearly 200 miles west of San Antonio.

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Migrants from around the world have been known to cross the Southwest border, but the vast majority are those from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. African migrants have shown up at the border in the past, but only in small numbers, making the sudden arrival of more than 700 all the more surprising to Border Patrol officials. From fiscal years 2007 to 2018, a total of 25 migrants from Congo and Angola were arrested and taken into custody in the Border Patrol’s nine sectors on the southern border, according to agency data.

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Many come with horrific stories of government-sanctioned violence at home and treacherous conditions on their long journeys through South and Central America.

“It’s definitely an anomaly that we have not experienced before,” said Raul L. Ortiz, the Border Patrol’s chief patrol agent for the Del Rio sector. “We do know there are some more in the pipeline. We’re going to prepare as if we should expect more.”

In both San Antonio and Portland, elected officials, volunteers, and nonprofit and religious leaders have rallied to assist the African migrants, donating money, serving free meals and operating overnight shelters. But their resources were already being stretched thin, and there was frustration among local officials about the federal government’s handling of the African migrant surge.

Many of the Central American asylum-seekers apprehended at the border have solidified their travel plans by the time they are released by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The migrants arrange to travel by plane or bus to join relatives already living in the United States.

But many of the recent African migrants do not have relatives in the country, so they are being released with no travel arrangements, a problem that local officials and nonprofit groups are forced to sort out. Some of the Congolese migrants in San Antonio said Border Patrol agents had chosen their destination cities for them, or encouraged them to select one of two cities, New York and Portland.

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A Border Patrol spokesman denied those claims, saying the agency is not directing migrants toward any particular destination.

In Portland — the largest city in Maine, with a population of 66,417 — about 200 African migrants were sleeping on cots Friday night in a temporary emergency shelter set up in the Portland Expo Center. The city has a large Congolese community and has built a reputation as a place friendly to asylum-seekers. It created the government-financed Portland Community Support Fund to provide rental payments to landlords and other forms of assistance for asylum-seekers, the only fund of its kind in the country, Portland officials said.

The mayor of Portland, Ethan K. Strimling, said they welcomed African migrants, and a donation campaign for them had raised more than $20,000 in its first 36 hours.

“I don’t consider it a crisis, in the sense that it is going to be detrimental to our city,” Strimling said. “We’re not building walls. We’re not trying to stop people. In Maine, and Portland in particular, we’ve been built on the backs of immigrants for 200 years, and this is just the current wave that’s arriving.”

Dr. Colleen Bridger, the interim assistant city manager of San Antonio, said the city would figure out a way to get the Africans the services and transportation they needed. The city and nonprofit groups have already spent more than $600,000 in direct expenditures in recent months on Central American and African migrant assistance.

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“It’s not an option for us to say to people newly arrived in the United States that they’re not our problem and that they’re welcome to sleep on the park bench until they find enough money to buy food and bus tickets for their children,” Bridger said. “That’s just not who San Antonio is.”