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LePage loses key battle in fight to ban food stamps for immigrants

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage speaks to members of the community in Bangor, July 11, 2017.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s high court ruled against Gov. Paul LePage’s administration Tuesday, saying asylum seekers who are allowed to work in the U.S. but are unemployed can receive food stamps while looking for jobs.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a 13-page decision that Burundian immigrant Euphrem Manirakiza of Portland can receive benefits under Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in a decision his lawyers have said could affect more than 100 immigrants.

At the heart of the lawsuit was a conflict between two areas of state law. A law in effect since 1997 allows needy immigrants to receive food stamps while looking for work, but the Legislature hasn’t explicitly funded that since 2013, when lawmakers appropriated $261,000 for that purpose until June 2015.

Manirakiza and his wife, Francine Kanyange, applied for food stamps in August 2015 after receiving federal authorization to work, but Manirakiza was later denied by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services based on the time limit of that law.

But the high court called that part of the law “ambiguous” Tuesday, saying the Legislature intended to enshrine “a permanent exception” to noncitizens’ general ineligibility for food stamps. The move overturned a lower court’s ruling issued in 2016.

The Republican governor’s administration was represented by the office of Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who is running to succeed the term-limited LePage in 2018. Spokespeople for LePage and DHHS didn’t respond to a request for comment. A Mills spokesperson referred questions to the administration.

Manirakiza was represented by Maine Equal Justice Partners, a progressive anti-poverty group. Jack Comart, a lawyer for the group, said he was “surprised” that his group lost in the lower court and “it was pretty clear what the law said.”

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