Governor Janet Mills (left) and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (right) meet with members of the public and other stakeholders in Portland on June 14 to discuss how to respond to the hundreds of asylum seekers now arriving in the city. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a reversal of her Republican predecessor, Gov. Janet Mills announced on Thursday that her administration would allow all asylum seekers taking “reasonable good faith steps” to complete the immigration process to qualify for state and municipal aid.

The move from the Democratic governor comes after Portland has processed 350 asylum seekers since last month amid a surge mostly made up of people from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola who came here after crossing the southern border.

The Mills administration posted the new emergency rule on Thursday after the governor announced the change in an op-ed released by her office and set to be published in the Portland Press Herald, framing it largely as a response to a workforce shortage expected to lead to nearly a quarter of workers between the ages of 45 and 54 leaving the workforce between 2016 and 2026 in the nation’s oldest and whitest state.

“Let’s put an end to the complaints, put aside the politics, and do the logical thing — welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy,” she wrote in the op-ed.

At the border, immigrants who fear persecution in their home country can apply for asylum. For the first six months, they are not allowed to work in the U.S. and their cases can take between six months and several years to resolve, according to the National Immigration Forum.

A recent federal policy change led the government to send asylum seekers to a preferred destination before they have begun that process and many have chosen Maine’s largest city because of its reputation of being welcoming to immigrants.

That sentiment is backed by a city fund to provide rental and other assistance that is the only one of its kind in the country. It was largely depleted as new immigrants began arriving in June, but Portland said this week that donors have contributed $815,000 to buoy the fund, which City Manager Jon Jennings said Thursday would be supplanted by the rule change.

“What she has done is enabled cities and towns across the state to look strategically at investing in these individuals and these families for future opportunities to grow their economy,” Jennings said of Mills.

In a news release, Mills’ office said the Department of Health and Human Services would make emergency changes to state rules to allow asylum seekers taking “reasonable good faith steps” to apply for immigration relief to apply for General Assistance, a state and municipal program that helps low-income Mainers pay for basic necessities including rent, utilities and food.

It’s a reversal of a policy from 2016 under former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican whose failure to veto a bill the year before led to the passage of a proposal aimed at ensuring that asylum seekers and other immigrants could qualify for General Assistance for up to two years.

The LePage administration clawed much of that back by writing state rules to limit the aid to people who had already submitted their asylum applications — which are complicated and often involve help from attorneys — to the federal government. Portland has provided funding to people who are working on applications without a state match that the change will provide.

General Assistance will still be limited to two years and Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the change is expected to cost “several hundred thousand dollars, not more than a million” per year.

The reversal of LePage’s policy will rankle many conservatives. In an email to supporters, Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said the governor is “bailing out” Portland and “pushing elderly and disabled Mainers to the back of the line.”

In Thursday letters, Maine’s congressional delegation urged the federal government to release the formula for handing out $30 million in funds recently authorized by Congress for communities dealing with an influx of asylum seekers and Mills argued for giving a share of that money to Maine communities and organizations.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...