When I hear people toss around terms like “legal non-citizens” or “asylum-seekers,” I immediately think of men, women and children who have fled their homes in fear. Many of them have witnessed brutal acts of violence and, in some cases, they have been victims of it. Some have lost family members and loved ones.
Families like these need help getting their feet on the ground after fleeing their homelands, often with nothing but what they can carry. They don’t dream of coming to America to live off General Assistance. They dream of living in security and of having opportunities to provide for themselves and their families.
I served four years in the Marines with combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I later returned to Afghanistan to volunteer at a school, and I worked for a U.S. company in both countries.
I’ve witnessed life in conflict-torn countries, where children live under the near constant threat of violence. I’ll never forget the Afghan girl I met who had acid thrown in her face because she attended school. I fought in regions where tribal leaders were executed for working with Americans like me to bring security to their people.
It doesn’t matter to me where asylum-seekers flee from, my concern is what they flee from.
Too many Americans take for granted our relative physical security from war. With less than 1 percent of Americans serving in the military, many lack the context necessary to appreciate what it means to be an asylum-seeker.
I agree with the president, who said to the U.N. General Assembly in 2013: “Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”
I believe in American exceptionalism and that Maine is the way life should be. But not if we refuse to offer shelter, food and opportunity to asylum-seekers who are far less fortunate than we are and who need our protection. I do not believe that our willingness to protect and care for those suffering under oppression abroad should stop at our doorstep.
Maine has Afghan and Iraqi residents who came to the U.S. seeking asylum. Portland and Lewiston have diverse populations of both refugees and asylum-seekers from conflict-torn nations such as Congo and Somalia.
Many asylum-seekers survive on GA until they are allowed to work. Once they have that opportunity, they prove themselves hardworking residents of our state who bring diverse skills, knowledge and experience to our communities, schools, and workforce. Some are now proud naturalized citizens. We are a stronger state for having them, and they are a critical component of our states’ revitalization and future success. Maine should invest in them.
These are the people whom House Republicans have made a sticking point in budget negotiations. Families that have fled their homes with little or nothing, who were in danger of violent persecution.
Recently, a Republican budget negotiator said that GA to legal non-citizens comes at the expense of increased spending for nursing homes.
That is a false choice. It is the creation of House Republicans who are holding the budget hostage over income tax cuts for the wealthy — another tax break for the top that will cost our state millions that could go to nursing homes and other services for seniors.
At a time when our state is operating with a revenue surplus, Maine does not have to choose between housing our elderly or housing asylum-seekers.
The majority budget proposed by Democrats and Senate Republicans includes $214 million for nursing homes, not including matching federal funds that would triple available resources. It also includes funding to assist legal non-citizens, but this funding represents about one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s overall $6.6 billion, two-year budget.
What is at stake in this debate about General Assistance is an answer to the question of what kind of state do we want to be. Do we want to be a state that denies shelter, food and opportunity to those seeking freedom from persecution?
That’s not the way life should be in Maine. We are a state of hardworking, generous people who care for our neighbors whether long-established or newcomers. These are not liberal values, they are American values.
If Republicans want welfare reform, Democrats are more than willing to work with them to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse, and to root out inefficiencies to produce cost-savings.
But Maine Democrats are committed to protecting the vulnerable men, women and children who come to America fleeing violence and oppression from facing homelessness and hunger here in Maine.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, is serving his first term in the Maine Legislature. He served four years in the Marine Corps, with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.