February 24, 2020
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Immigrant debate shows we’ve lost sight of Lady Liberty’s message

June 17 marked the 130th anniversary of the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in America.

Wednesday marked the 130th anniversary of the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in America. A gift from the French, the 305-foot statue, officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World,” was meant as a symbol of freedom.

A poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed on a tablet at the base of the statue. It reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

So, how did the Maine Legislature mark the statue’s anniversary? By passing, in the early morning hours, a budget that limits assistance to asylum seekers in Maine, the very people the Statue of Liberty so graciously welcomes to America.

To qualify for asylum, applicants must document that they and/or their family members have been harmed or threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group affiliation. If they fear mistreatment or torture if they return, they must explain why.

Under federal law, those who have applied for asylum may not even apply for authorization to work for 150 days, so they have limited means to support themselves and their families. That’s why aid from the state is vital.

These facts don’t matter to people, such as Gov. Paul LePage and his allies, who seek to score political points by vilifying “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens,” and decrying the small amount of financial support they receive.

Last month, a court ruled that Maine cities — especially Portland and Westbrook, which filed the suit — were not violating the law by providing General Assistance to asylum seekers, but that the state did not have to reimburse communities for these expenses. The LePage administration had sought to withhold all General Assistance funds from communities that used any of the money for aid to asylum seekers and those not considered “qualified aliens” under federal law.

Then, House Republicans demanded that reductions in aid to “legal nonresidents” had to be part of the budget. They set up a false choice of either cutting this assistance or hurting Maine’s elderly by not funding nursing homes.

New limits on food assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and supplemental security income for asylum seekers were proposed, but dropped from the budget approved by lawmakers. The budget did not address the General Assistance issue.

Several Democratic lawmakers from Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Westbrook voted “no” after attempts to amend the budget to fix the General Assistance problem failed. On Thursday, the Senate passed a measure submitted by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that would allow legal noncitizens, including asylum seekers, to receive General Assistance for basic living requirements, such as shelter, food and clothes, for up to 24 months.

The $6.7 billion two-year budget passed with veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. On Thursday morning, LePage issued 64 line-item vetoes. In a letter explaining why, LePage criticized the Legislature for “reward[ing] cities that insist on giving local taxpayers’ money to illegal aliens.”

The people LePage derides are not “illegal aliens.” They are not from another planet, but from countries rife with ethnic and religious violence. They are in the United States legally, awaiting a decision on their applications to stay.

With rhetoric like LePage’s, the golden door referenced in Lazarus’ poem is incrementally closing, and the U.S.’s proud history of promising new beginnings for immigrants from around the world is diminished. Not much of an anniversary present for Lady Liberty, the Mother of Exiles.

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