EDITORIALS

Municipal group’s intervention is needed to resolve LePage spat over aid for immigrants

Posted July 10, 2014, at 10:41 a.m.
Last modified July 10, 2014, at 4:23 p.m.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said recently that Portland would not comply with a directive from Gov. Paul LePage to cut General Assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.
Emily McDorr
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said recently that Portland would not comply with a directive from Gov. Paul LePage to cut General Assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.

It goes without saying that Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt to bar the state’s towns and cities from giving out General Assistance to immigrants without legal status puts some of Maine’s newest residents in a bind.

The other significant constituency facing a major predicament because of LePage’s efforts? Maine’s towns and cities, which are charged under state law with administering General Assistance and distributing this last-resort source of incidental aid to eligible residents.

Municipalities are essentially damned if they do and damned if they don’t in this situation.

They can continue to give out aid to applicants without regard to immigration status. But that means they risk having the LePage administration cut off reimbursement for the state’s portion of General Assistance. And that’s a major funding impact in the cities such as Bangor, Lewiston and Portland that distribute the bulk of General Assistance aid.

Alternatively, towns and cities could opt to follow policy guidance from the LePage administration, check the immigration status of all General Assistance applicants and withhold aid from applicants who are not considered “qualified aliens” under federal law. That could include immigrants awaiting an asylum determination.

But, “[s]uffice it to say that any municipality embarking on such an endeavor will be taking on significant liability and administrative burden.” That’s the advice to municipal officials contained in a 10-year-old General Assistance manual prepared by DHHS and a handful of local officials.

A town or city official vetting General Assistance applications would have to check the immigration status of all applicants — and not just those he or she might suspect of being in the country illegally — in order to avoid violating anti-discrimination laws. On top of that, it’s no easy matter to accurately determine someone’s immigration status.

Enter the Maine Municipal Association.

There’s a legitimate legal battle at stake here, and the Maine Municipal Association is attempting to resolve the legal quandary. We applaud the association for intervening.

Both the LePage administration and Attorney General Janet Mills have valid legal points to make in this controversy.

LePage says he has authority to cut off aid to undocumented immigrants due to a provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law that prohibits states from giving out benefits — even benefits such as General Assistance not funded at all by the federal government — to “qualified aliens.” However, if a state passes a law that “affirmatively provides for such eligibility,” the prohibition doesn’t apply. Maine has no such law on the books.

Mills argues the administration, in order to carry out the policy change, at least needs to abide by the Maine Administrative Procedure Act that outlines a process for executive branch agencies to follow when they develop new rules to carry out existing laws and administer state programs. That process provides for public input and a legal review by the attorney general’s office.

The Maine Municipal Association on Thursday petitioned the Cumberland County Superior Court in order to force a judge’s ruling on the legality of the LePage administration’s General Assistance directive. The group, which represents the state’s towns and cities before the Legislature, also plans to hire an outside law firm to look into the larger conflicts between state and federal laws. The result will be informed guidance for municipal officials and state lawmakers.

The Maine Municipal Association has homed in on the correct questions that need sorting out, and the organization’s efforts might, in fact, resolve the pending legal quandary.

They won’t, however, repair the damage done to Maine’s image from this episode — which can’t conceivably be perceived as welcoming with the governor determined to cut off any aid available to those seeking a new, safe place to call home.

 

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