April 4, 2011

Plan to cut aid to immigrants pared back

Advocates still express concerns

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

The LePage administration has scaled back proposals to cut social service benefits to immigrants and refugees as officials waded into the complexities of the programs and federal requirements.

The relatively small number of people affected, and the small amount of potential savings, show that the programs are not generous or expensive and are only helping the neediest newcomers, according to advocates for immigrants and the poor.

While the savings are not as large as expected, administration officials maintain the cuts are still needed to balance the budget and preserve social services for the majority of recipients.

Under the latest proposal, the cuts would affect fewer than 2,000 adults and children statewide and save about $3.5 million a year. Those affected represent less than five percent of Maine’s immigrant population and a fraction of the more than 330,000 Mainers receiving benefits such as cash assistance, food stamps or health care.

“To say we’re going to cut all these benefits to immigrants, it gives the impression they are all getting benefits, and it’s really a small percentage” who ask for the help, said Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland. “Here’s proof that today’s immigrants are doing exactly what our grandparents did. They are getting benefits at a far lower rate than the native Maine population or the citizen population is.”

Gov. Paul LePage singled out benefits for immigrants in his budget address as one of his administration’s first welfare reforms.

While Maine must always be a welcoming place for those who want to work hard and be self-reliant, he said in February, it should no longer be one of a handful of states that offers all welfare benefits “on day one.”

His initial budget proposed to save about $10 million a year by eliminating a variety of benefits for new immigrants and refugees who are not yet U.S. citizens. That proposal would have made all legal immigrants ineligible for MaineCare, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families during their first five years of residency.

Last week, administration officials reduced the scope of the proposed cuts, saying the state would maintain MaineCare benefits for more than 1,200 children and pregnant women who were included in the initial cuts. The federal government pays about two-thirds of the costs of those benefits and, because they are already covered, the federal Affordable Care Act prohibits the state from reducing coverage for that group, officials said.

All of the remaining cuts are focused on benefits that are not offered by the federal government and are paid solely by the state. They would eliminate TANF cash assistance for 138 parents and children, food stamps for 611 people and MaineCare for 1,550 people, according to the state. Many recipients get more than one of the benefits.

Those changes would affect legal, “green card” immigrants, most of whom were sponsored by families or employers when they arrived in the United States.

Illegal or undocumented immigrants already are denied such benefits under state and federal laws.
Refugees and those with political asylum, groups that have a different legal status because they have escaped war or violence, are supported by the federal government and mostly unaffected by the state’s budget proposals.

A small number of disabled or elder refugees — as many as 78 statewide — would lose state-funded benefits that become available after they have been here seven years. The state benefits replace Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which the federal government cuts off if a refugee hasn’t achieved citizenship in seven years.

(Continued on page 2)

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