The LePage administration has proposed a rule change to prevent asylum seekers and some other immigrants from receiving General Assistance.

Immigration advocates and city officials in Portland called the proposal discriminatory, saying it could leave more than 1,000 people in Portland without shelter or other basic needs because General Assistance is the last resort for people who don’t qualify for any other aid. And they questioned whether such a change requires legislation, rather than an administrative rule change.

The proposal is the latest to focus on limiting welfare benefits to noncitizens, a priority of Gov. Paul LePage since he took office in 2011.

In one of his first acts as governor, LePage issued an executive order allowing state agencies to question people about their immigration status before granting services or benefits. The order was described as a way to preserve benefits for Maine people and discourage outsiders from coming here to take advantage of Maine’s generosity.

The latest proposal would affect primarily new immigrants who are not yet citizens and are not official refugees resettled here by the federal government. That would include people who have fled violence or political persecution and are seeking asylum in the United States, as well as visa holders and undocumented immigrants.

Maine’s General Assistance programs now consider only financial need, not citizenship status, in granting benefits.

Most asylum seekers in Maine have settled in Portland and Lewiston, where they sometimes rely on General Assistance to pay rent and utilities before they can legally work. General Assistance is provided by cities and towns, funded in part by the state.

If communities want to keep providing services to asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, they could continue to do so at their own expense, said John Martins, spokesman for the Department of Heath and Human Services, which runs the state General Assistance program.

“Municipalities will still have the option of spending municipal budget dollars to serve this population,” Martins said. “The state funding portion would be what would no longer be available.”

He said he didn’t know how many people would be affected by the rule change or how much money the state could save.

Without the aid program, communities would end up providing basic needs through soup kitchens and emergency shelters, say critics of the proposal.

“This would be devastating for Portland and Lewiston. There are hundreds of people who would lose assistance,” said Robyn Merrill, a policy analyst for the Maine Equal Justice Partners. “We think we have a strong equal-protection argument here.”

SHORT-TERM SUPPORT NEEDED

The rule change would affect people like Leonce Ntungwanayo, who came to Maine in April 2011. Ntungwanayo, 24, fled Burundi and applied for asylum shortly after coming to Maine. His case is still pending.

He relied on General Assistance for five months while he awaited permission from the federal government to work here. He then spent 13 days in the city’s homeless shelter until he could find an apartment.

“(General Assistance) is important. They need it to start a new life,” said Ntungwanayo, who now works as a pharmacy technician. “Since I got my work permit, I am independent.”

LePage is making welfare reform a priority in his first term and as he gears up for his 2014 re-election campaign. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, did not respond to emails Monday seeking comment from the governor’s office.

A public hearing on the rule change has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 10 at 19 Union St. in Augusta, Conference Room 110. Written comments must be submitted by Jan. 24.

The proposal, posted late last week, would align the state’s eligibility requirements for General Assistance with the federal requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Those programs are available to refugees who are resettled by the U.S. State Department, but not to people who have fled violence or political persecution and are seeking asylum.

STATE CHIPS IN LION’s SHARE

Maine is one of 11 states that have state-and-local general assistance programs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, but is among just a few that base assistance solely on financial need.

In fiscal 2012, Maine communities provided a total of $17.5 million in General Assistance, $13.2 million of which came from the state budget, according to the DHHS.

Portland and Lewiston would be among the communities most affected because they receive most of the state’s new immigrants.

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett could not provide an estimate Monday of the number of people who could be affected. He said the Lewiston City Council has yet to take a position on the proposal.

Portland provided $9.6 million in General Assistance to 4,376 individuals and families in the last fiscal year, with 90 percent of that money spent on food and shelter, according to the city.

Of the total spent, $2.4 million came from property taxpayers and $7.2 million came from the state budget, said Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

Gardner could not provide details about how much of the city’s General Assistance budget is spent to help asylum seekers. He estimated that 650 households, totaling 1,200 people, could be affected by the rule, which he said also would affect visa holders and undocumented immigrants.

CITY WON’T STOP HELPING

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Monday that the city will be obligated to help asylum seekers even if the state changes their eligibility.

“They don’t evaporate. They’re still in the city of Portland needing food and needing shelter,” Brennan said.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which assists asylum seekers, said General Assistance is foundational support for people who ultimately become productive members of the community. Her group is opposing the changes for economic and humanitarian reasons.

“They really need General Assistance as a lifeline until they can work,” Roche said.

Several of Portland’s state legislators questioned whether the administration could make such a change through the rule-making process, rather than through the legislative process.

“It would seem to me to be legislation by rule-making, and that bothers me,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

No one was available in the Attorney General’s Office on Monday to discuss the proposal.

Martins, in the DHHS, said, “The department is acting within its rule-making authority in proposing this rule.”

 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings