AUGUSTA, Maine — A range of groups focused on human rights and social justice rallied at the State House on Friday to cry foul over a proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services to deny general assistance to immigrants newly arrived in Maine.
While DHHS argues that the proposed rule change is meant to bring Maine in line with federal guidelines for receiving benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, others argue that not offering this assistance to immigrants could complicate the plights of people who already have experienced terrible personal strife.
General assistance is a program administered by municipal governments to provide financial support to people experiencing financial crises, but which is partially funded with state dollars.
Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration proposed the new rules last month, but doesn’t consider them major enough to require approval by the Legislature.
“We feel that this exceeds the authority of the department to [make the changes] through rule,” said Merrill. “We have a lot of concerns, including social concerns with respect to our values with Maine people, economic concerns and legal concerns.”
DHHS spokesman John Martins said in a written statement that under the proposed rule change, municipalities can still opt to provide general assistance but that the state will not share the cost of benefits for people who are not documented citizens of the United States and some legal noncitizens. He said state resources are needed in other areas.
“We continue to focus our efforts to ensure that our limited resources are targeted to serve Maine’s most vulnerable, including the elderly and those who are physically and intellectually disabled, so they can receive the services they need and move off longstanding wait lists,” wrote Martins.
Reforms to general assistance have been a source of conflict among local governments, advocates for the poor and the LePage administration in recent years. In 2012, the Legislature and LePage enacted a supplemental budget bill that called for recommendations to redesign the general assistance program in a way that would save the state $500,000 in fiscal year 2013.
A general assistance work group studied the issue and in January 2013 presented a report identifying dozens of changes that would generate savings of more than $800,000. Many of the changes were adopted by the Legislature.
According to Merrill, the issue of providing general assistance to recent immigrants was reviewed but rejected by a subcommittee of the work group. Several immigrants spoke at the State House rally Friday afternoon in advance of a public hearing on the issue. Those who spoke to reporters detailed the terrible circumstances under which they fled their native countries and how general assistance once they arrived in Maine kept them and their families from homelessness.
Alain Bitariho, an asylum seeker from Burundi, said he came to Maine in 2011 but that it took him until this week to receive his work visa. He and his family, which includes five children, would have suffered mightily without general assistance, even though his wife has been working two jobs.
“Until yesterday, there was a very long period of time that I was not allowed to work here,” he said. “General assistance has made it possible for all of us to be together as a family, to be safe and for our children to stay healthy and get an education. We won’t rely on general assistance for much longer while I am able to work and I hope our neighbors will think of this temporary assistance as an investment in Maine’s future.”
Fatuma Hussein, director of United Somali Women of Maine, said immigrants contribute to society.
“It’s a moral and human act to provide assistance and meet the vital needs of this population,” said Hussein. “The face of Maine is changing and so are our communities.”
Merrill said the change proposed recently by DHHS would be “devastating” for immigrant families, many of whom come to Maine seeking asylum and protection from violence in their homelands. She also said it would create problems for municipalities — chiefly Portland and Lewiston, where there are concentrations of immigrants — because they will be faced with dilemmas about how to support immigrants who are on the verge of homelessness but not eligible for general assistance.
“There would be hundreds of people unable to pay their rent,” said Merrill. “A lot of general assistance goes in the form of vouchers to landlords. People would be on the streets.”
Written comments on the proposed rule changes are due by midnight on Jan. 24. They can be sent to Dave MacLean, General Assistance Program Manager, Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Family Independence, 11 State House Station, 19 Union Street, Augusta, ME 04333-0011, or by email to Dave.MacLean@Maine.gov.
Martin said if the rules were to stay on track for adoption, they would take effect in late March or early April.