PORTLAND, Maine — Two women seeking asylum from the country of Burundi have asked to join a lawsuit challenging a state policy proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that would eliminate reimbursement to communities that provide General Assistance to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Maine Equal Justice Partners filed the request to join the suit against the LePage administration on behalf of Rehma Rebecca Juma of Portland and Suavis Furaha of Westbrook, according to a joint release Thursday from the two organizations.
The two women, who came to the United States in 2013, seek to join a case filed in Cumberland County Superior Court by the Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook.
Both women have applied for asylum status, and have not yet been granted work permits, according to the release.
“The rule change would mean that neither woman would be eligible to receive assistance, even though they have broken no law and have no other way to earn money,” the release states.
General Assistance is a program to provide temporary assistance to families or individuals who cannot afford life necessities, such as heat, housing, food or utilities. The program is administered at the municipal level but funded by a combination of state and local dollars. The state reimburses towns for between 50 and 90 percent of General Assistance costs, at a total annual price of around $17.8 million.
Last month, the LePage administration declared it would no longer distribute General Assistance aid for undocumented immigrants, then subsequently went a step further to say it would cut off the subsidies entirely for municipalities which didn’t comply with the order.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, questioned the constitutionality of the rule, and the Maine Municipal Association — later joined by Portland and Westbrook — filed suit seeking clarity from a Superior Court judge on the legality of the change.
“General Assistance provides temporary support for people who are trying to build a new life after escaping terrible violence,” Robyn Merrill, senior policy analyst for MEJP, said in the release. “The vast majority of people impacted by this change are asylum seekers who are lawfully seeking refuge here. They are caught in legal limbo, unable to work and with few resources. The LePage administration is playing politics with people’s lives.”
John Martins, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday afternoon that the department had no comment on the complaint.
LePage’s communications staff were immediately available for comment.