Regardless of your legal reading of Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to keep Maine’s towns and cities from doling out General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, what’s clear is that the governor is wasting many people’s time to, apparently, make a political point.
In the process, LePage’s move could put some of the state’s poorest — and newest — residents in a precarious position, along with Maine’s municipalities.
LePage has doubled down on his quest to see to it that those who don’t meet the definition of “qualified alien” under a 1996 federal law don’t receive General Assistance — a last-resort source of aid issued by municipal governments that is a combination of state and local funds.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month informed municipalities that they weren’t to give out General Assistance to those without legal immigration status. DHHS issued the new policy guidance just weeks after Attorney General Janet Mills determined a previous and broader rule proposal from the department — which would have cut off General Assistance for all noncitizens — was illegal.
LePage followed up this week with a letter to municipalities in which he said the state would withhold General Assistance reimbursement from any town or city that doesn’t comply with the administration’s rule.
Both Mills and the LePage administration have a legal case to make.
LePage points to a provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton. It prohibits states from giving out benefits — even benefits such as General Assistance not funded at all by the federal government — to those not considered “qualified aliens.” That is, unless the state passes a law that “affirmatively provides for such eligibility.”
Maine has passed no such a law, LePage notes, and he says Maine DHHS should be able to administer the General Assistance program in a way that complies with federal law.
But the administration is skirting 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.
Mills also argues that the move imposes an unfunded mandate on towns and cities; unfunded mandates can’t become law without two-thirds support from the Legislature. On top of that, Mills argued this week, the federal law LePage is citing has no enforcement mechanism and is itself legally questionable.
The fact that this new policy guidance from DHHS could be an unfunded mandate is not insignificant. That’s because affirming someone’s immigration status is no simple matter. A decade ago, a General Assistance manual prepared by DHHS and a handful of local officials advised municipal officials that “under Maine GA law, such inquires into immigration status are not required and furthermore GA law allows anyone to apply. … Suffice it to say that any municipality embarking on such an endeavor will be taking on significant liability and administrative burden.”
To start, if a town or city asks to verify one applicant’s immigration status, it has to ask to verify all applicants’ immigration status to avoid violating anti-discrimination laws. Then, a municipal administrator — potentially from a short-staffed, small town office — has to become familiar enough with immigration law to determine whether an applicant has legal status. The town faces significant legal consequences if an official makes the wrong determination.
In its most recent guidance to towns and cities, DHHS instructs towns to contact the agency’s regional offices for assistance in affirming General Assistance applicants’ immigration status. But then that means more of DHHS’ limited resources — better spent on helping people access the help they need to become self-sufficient — will be devoted to affirming immigration status.
The LePage administration clearly isn’t making this change to save money. The additional administrative burden on DHHS — to administer a program that is a $12 million line item in the $3 billion state budget — could negate any savings to the state from denying aid to undocumented immigrants.
This move, however, does offer LePage another opportunity to reclaim the welfare reform mantle.