October 14, 2019
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House passes bill to grant General Assistance to asylum seekers

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Aimee Nyirakanyana, owner of Ebenezer African Grocery Store in Portland, said most of her customers use General Assistance funds to make purchases. Nyirakanyana, originally from Rwanda, said general assistance vouchers enabled her to settle here and become an entrepreneur.

AUGUSTA – The Maine House approved a bill Monday allowing asylum-seeking immigrants to collect up to 24 months of General Assistance welfare payments from cities and towns. However, the bill faces additional hurdles in the Legislature and a likely veto from Gov. Paul LePage.

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, largely split along party lines, voted 81-63 to approve the measure, which requires the state to reimburse Maine cities and towns for a portion of the benefits paid to those who are seeking asylum in Maine and awaiting permission from the federal government to work.

The issue has been a controversial one for Maine as the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has said taxpayer money going to help non-resident immigrants means there are fewer funds available for elderly and disabled residents — many of whom have been on DHHS waiting lists for years.

“You get the idea that we are turning our back on new Mainers, what we are turning our back on are lifetime Mainers, Mainers who have been here,” said state Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. “Again we are $30 million short on clearing our waitlists.”

But Democrats have argued that Republicans have insisted on cutting income taxes, which also has consequences for the waitlists at DHHS. They argued that Republicans were pitting one group of disadvantaged people against another.

“House Republicans presented a series of false choices today to justify denying a helping hand to vulnerable people who have fled their homes to escape persecution,”said Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston. “At a time when our state has a revenue surplus, and when the Legislature can afford to hand out a $10 million tax break to Maine’s 7,000 wealthiest, earning more than $370,000 per year, it is misleading to claim that Mainers must choose between caring for our elderly and disabled and providing shelter and food to asylum-seekers.”

Proponents of the measure argue that for some immigrants, particularly asylum seekers, the assistance is crucial for bridging the gap between their arriving in the U.S. and attaining permanent residency. Asylum seekers, who often flee detention, rape, torture and other forms of persecution in foreign countries, are not allowed work permits during that period, which averages about 18 months.

In Portland, where the majority of the affected people live, some estimates were that up to 1,000 people would lose their benefits at the end of this month and face homelessness. Monday’s vote follows a more bipartisan, 29-6 approval of an amendment to the bill by state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that placed the 24-month limit on the benefits.

But in the House, only two Republicans, state Rep. Ellie Espling, of New Gloucester and Kevin Battle, of South Portland, joined Democrats in supporting the bill. Seven lawmakers were absent for the vote.

To overturn a veto lawmakers need two thirds of Legislature or at least 101 votes in the House and 24 votes in the state Senate.

The bill now returns to the Senate for additional votes.

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