Politics

December 24, 2013

LePage proposal would end assistance to asylum seekers

Portland officials say a General Assistance rule change could leave many immigrants without shelter or food.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The LePage administration has proposed a rule change to prevent asylum seekers and some other immigrants from receiving General Assistance.

click image to enlarge

In this June 2013 file photo, Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters at the State House in Augusta. The LePage administration has proposed a rule change to prevent asylum seekers and some other immigrants from receiving General Assistance.

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Immigration advocates and city officials in Portland called the proposal discriminatory, saying it could leave more than 1,000 people in Portland without shelter or other basic needs because General Assistance is the last resort for people who don’t qualify for any other aid. And they questioned whether such a change requires legislation, rather than an administrative rule change.

The proposal is the latest to focus on limiting welfare benefits to noncitizens, a priority of Gov. Paul LePage since he took office in 2011.

In one of his first acts as governor, LePage issued an executive order allowing state agencies to question people about their immigration status before granting services or benefits. The order was described as a way to preserve benefits for Maine people and discourage outsiders from coming here to take advantage of Maine’s generosity.

The latest proposal would affect primarily new immigrants who are not yet citizens and are not official refugees resettled here by the federal government. That would include people who have fled violence or political persecution and are seeking asylum in the United States, as well as visa holders and undocumented immigrants.

Maine’s General Assistance programs now consider only financial need, not citizenship status, in granting benefits.

Most asylum seekers in Maine have settled in Portland and Lewiston, where they sometimes rely on General Assistance to pay rent and utilities before they can legally work. General Assistance is provided by cities and towns, funded in part by the state.

If communities want to keep providing services to asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, they could continue to do so at their own expense, said John Martins, spokesman for the Department of Heath and Human Services, which runs the state General Assistance program.

“Municipalities will still have the option of spending municipal budget dollars to serve this population,” Martins said. “The state funding portion would be what would no longer be available.”

He said he didn’t know how many people would be affected by the rule change or how much money the state could save.

Without the aid program, communities would end up providing basic needs through soup kitchens and emergency shelters, say critics of the proposal.

“This would be devastating for Portland and Lewiston. There are hundreds of people who would lose assistance,” said Robyn Merrill, a policy analyst for the Maine Equal Justice Partners. “We think we have a strong equal-protection argument here.”

SHORT-TERM SUPPORT NEEDED

The rule change would affect people like Leonce Ntungwanayo, who came to Maine in April 2011. Ntungwanayo, 24, fled Burundi and applied for asylum shortly after coming to Maine. His case is still pending.

He relied on General Assistance for five months while he awaited permission from the federal government to work here. He then spent 13 days in the city’s homeless shelter until he could find an apartment.

“(General Assistance) is important. They need it to start a new life,” said Ntungwanayo, who now works as a pharmacy technician. “Since I got my work permit, I am independent.”

LePage is making welfare reform a priority in his first term and as he gears up for his 2014 re-election campaign. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, did not respond to emails Monday seeking comment from the governor’s office.

A public hearing on the rule change has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 10 at 19 Union St. in Augusta, Conference Room 110. Written comments must be submitted by Jan. 24.

The proposal, posted late last week, would align the state’s eligibility requirements for General Assistance with the federal requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

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