PORTLAND, Maine — Members of the immigrant community and their advocates gathered Saturday in Deering Oaks Park to protest a mandate by Gov. Paul LePage to cut all General Assistance reimbursement to communities that provide that assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.
As faith leaders called the order “unconscionable” and “morally indefensible,” the mayors of three Maine cities said they would not comply with it, in part because Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has determined it is illegal and unconstitutional.
“I think it’s incredibly unfortunate that the governor is not only asking us to disregard the law, but he’s also asking us to turn our back on hundreds of thousands of people in the city of Portland, and we will not do that,” Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said.
Brennan also read a statement from South Portland Mayor Gerard Jalbert, who said he will not comply with the directive.
Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton told the crowd, “I have no intention of enforcing this mandate. It’s simply wrong.”
Several cities, including Bangor, already said they would ignore the department’s new guideline until the discrepancy between the attorney general’s interpretation and the department’s is resolved.
Luc-Armand Ningumirize, 27, said Saturday that General Assistance is an investment, not a waste.
Ningumirize came to Portland in 2009 from Burundi seeking asylum. He received General Assistance for 18 months when he first arrived and was then granted asylum.
Today, he studies accounting full-time at the University of Southern Maine and also works full-time with people with mental disabilities.
“We experienced a lot of trauma and killings in our country, and we came here looking for safety,” he said. “We feel this is our home, and now I’m contributing and paying taxes. I will be an asset to Maine.”
“We have been scared since the first week the proposal was announced,” Suavis Furaha, 45, told the Bangor Daily News.
Furaha came to Portland with her four children from Burundi in September 2013. General Assistance helps the family survive while Furaha waits for a work permit. In the meantime, she is “learning English day and night” in order to be ready when she is allowed to work.
Pastor Ellen Schoepf of St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland said on behalf of the Maine Council of Churches that LePage’s proposal is “unconscionable,” “morally indefensible” and “mean-spirited.”
Others suggested political gamesmanship prior to the November election.
“People have said he’s maybe talking to his base, to put people against immigrants,” said Alain Nahimana, a coordinator for the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition. “But he’s ignoring why people come to this country. People are willing to work and be part of communities. They’re not here for a handout. People didn’t cross oceans just to get General Assistance.”
On Saturday afternoon, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett sent the following response: “Maine is no longer a sanctuary state. Portland’s liberal mayor and other city and town officials may refuse to comply with federal law and instead choose to force local taxpayers to foot the bill for illegal aliens.”
Bennett continued, “Governor LePage has been very clear and consistent: the state is simply following federal law. Mainers must live within their means. We have a governor who is finally leading the state toward fiscal sanity. Do you want your hard-earned taxpayer dollars supporting fellow Mainers who are truly in need and are vulnerable — such as our children, elderly, disabled and the mentally ill — or do you want your money going to support illegal aliens?”
Bangor Daily News reporters Christopher Cousins and Mario Moretto contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the proposed new rule would essentially block anyone from receiving General Assistance until they receive full U.S. citizenship.