PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Mayor Michael Brennan joined members of the city’s religious community as well as current and former general assistance recipients on Friday to decry a state proposal that would eliminate safety-net benefits for asylum seekers and immigrants.
Friday represents the final day the state Department of Health and Human Services is accepting public comment on a proposed rule change that would cut state funding for general assistance to immigrants newly arrived to Maine.
To mark the end of the input-gathering process, a group of advocates, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, delivered more than 2,600 signatures of people opposed to the measure.
The department now has 120 days to implement the rule, during which time the Maine attorney general’s office must review it for legality.
Department spokesman John Martins told the BDN on Friday the move aimed to replicate aid distribution rules that have been in place at the federal level since 1996. In a written statement, he also reiterated the argument that the state’s limited resources must be rerouted to better help “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.”
Martins had previously said municipalities could decide to pick up the responsibility of providing aid for asylum seekers and immigrants at the local level. General assistance is an emergency aid program paid for with state and municipal funds but administered by Maine cities and towns.
On Friday, Brennan said the state has already reduced subsidies to municipalities at a rate that makes any additional financial burden inconceivable. He and others taking part in a morning news conference called the proposed cuts to general assistance aid “discriminatory.”
“[Picking up the aid responsibility at the local level] is going to be next to impossible when you’re cutting revenue sharing, cutting the circuit breaker program and making municipalities pick up the costs of retirees’ pension programs,” he said.
Rachel Healy of the ACLU of Maine said the ACLU would be one of potentially several organizations that would likely file a lawsuit against the state over the rule change if it’s approved by both the department and the attorney general.
Because it is a rule change, it does not require legislative approval.
“If this proposal is allowed to go forward, there will be hundreds of people in Portland who would immediately be without shelter and without food,” Brennan said.
According to City Manager Mark Rees, general assistance in November benefitted 351 Portland households — consisting of 592 individuals — who qualified for no other subsidies and couldn’t legally hold jobs because of their visa or pending asylum status.
Mohamed Ibrahim, a former general assistance recipient from Lewiston, said at Friday’s Portland news conference that the small amount of aid kept him off the streets just long enough to get his documentation in order and find a legal job. He’s now a taxpayer contributing to the state just like his neighbors, he said.
Ibrahim bristled at what he said is the perception that immigrants and asylum seekers come to America satisfied to just live off tax-funded programs.
“Asylees come to Maine because we believe we can find better treatment and safe shelter for ourselves and for our families,” he said. “That is what the GA represents to us, but that is not what we have been hearing from some leaders these days, who are saying we come to Maine just to use the generosity of the people of Maine. Asylees are grateful for the help GA gives, and we pay back our new communities by contributing once we are able to work.”
Ange Stephie Hodari, 21, is an asylum seeker from Burundi who said during the Friday event she will be able to qualify for a work permit “in a few months,” but will end up homeless in the short term if her general assistance is taken away.
Jim Wellehan, owner of Lamey Wellehan Shoes, said that America was built by immigrants and asylum seekers coming from around the globe in decades past, and it’s shortsighted for those newcomers’ descendants to cut the lifeline to today’s newcomers.
“These people have faced famine, they’ve had war, they’ve had persecution,” Wellehan said at the Portland event. “No Maine business and no Maine people will benefit from homelessness and hunger.”
Reforms to general assistance have been a source of conflict among local governments, advocates for the poor and Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s 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.