Images of Syrians flocking to Europe have heightened international concern about refugees from a civil war that has devastated that country. Germany is expected to handle more than 800,000 asylum applications before the year is over.

In Maine, there are far fewer asylum seekers, but they have been at the center of a political disagreement about immigration and public benefits. That debate should end now that a group that sought to repeal a new law allowing state financial assistance to these refugees has dropped that effort.

In the final days of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers amended and approved a bill to provide General Assistance benefits for up to two years to those lawfully present in the United States and in the process of seeking “immigration relief” here. The bill was among the 65 that Gov. Paul LePage did not veto on time, allowing them to become law.

General Assistance, which is administered by municipalities but funded jointly by state and local governments, provides emergency aid for housing, medicine and other basic needs. Housing assistance accounts for the bulk of General Assistance support.

Federal law prohibits those who have applied for asylum — immigrants seeking to avoid persecution, torture or worse in their home countries — from applying for a work permit for five months. Processing the permit can take more than a year. Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree are working to fix this.

On the other side of the issue, a group led by conservative activist Stavros Mendros pledged to collect signatures to initiate a people’s veto of the law. He abandoned that effort this week in favor of a Maine Republican Party-backed referendum to restrict welfare benefits.

This saves Maine, for now, from what was likely to be a hateful campaign based on fear and demonization of those who are different in order to withhold help from men, women and families seeking to build lives in America. It also means that asylum seekers will be eligible for General Assistance benefits beginning Oct. 15, although the Department of Health and Human Services is still in the process of writing rules fulfilling the intent of the new law.

Department spokesman David Sorensen told the Portland Press Herald that the rules would be available for public comment in the “coming weeks” and that the department was working to determine the cost of the law change.

“The department is currently projecting costs, but at the end of the day, Maine taxpayers, against their wishes, will be paying millions of dollars for welfare for noncitizens as a result of the Legislature’s actions this year,” Sorensen said in an email to the newspaper.

We actually have nowhere near this level of certainty about what the public wishes on this matter. The administration has long said that LePage was re-elected because voters wanted welfare reform and that ending welfare for “illegal aliens” is a priority. But polling before the November 2014 election showed that jobs and the economy were the top concerns of Maine voters. Plus, the law allowing asylum seekers to collect General Assistance was enacted by people elected by “Maine taxpayers.” Yet playing up fears of immigrants taking your tax dollars has been a staple of the LePage and Republican Party political playbooks.

Annually, General Assistance costs the state about $12 million per year for about 12,000 recipients — a small slice of a state budget that exceeds $3 billion annually. There are about 1,000 asylum seekers in Maine, so they will account for a small fraction of that cost, hardly “millions of dollars.”

Lawmakers did the right thing by extending a temporary helping hand to these refugees. Without a repeal effort, it is time to lay this issue to rest and move on to more pressing matters, like economic development and job creation.


The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...