Imagine living in a country where saying what you think out loud is forbidden, where arrests and beatings come without warning or explanation, where people just disappear.
Now imagine what it takes to survive in a place like that, to find your way out, across borders and oceans.
Imagine arriving in a place whose population, culture, climate and government could not be more different from your own. Then imagine settling there, building a life, calling it home.
Just imagine the strength, resiliency and determination that requires.
Those are the kinds of people Maine should welcome. And that is, for the most part, the story of Maine immigration in the last two decades.
So while there are a number of problems with Gov. LePage’s effort to deny state funding for General Assistance based on immigration status, the greatest is that it underestimates and misrepresents a population that should be a part of Maine’s future.
LePage’s policy change – his latest attack on General Assistance and welfare in general – was announced Wednesday in a Department of Health and Human Services news release. It said the state will stop funding General Assistance for undocumented immigrants, a move that the state says will save more than $1 million from a program that cost the state $13 million last year.
That is of particular import to Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, which are reimbursed as much as 90 percent by the state because of the higher use of General Assistance in those communities. But other municipalities, which are reimbursed as much as 50 percent, still would be required to check immigration status to receive state money.
There are legal and procedural questions about LePage’s directive.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who has sparred frequently with the governor, has said it is unconstitutional, with LePage countering that federal law supports his view.
The real question, however, is whether Maine should offer what amounts to basic, subsistence-level aid to immigrants whose immigration status is murky.
It’s helpful to start by defining whom this policy affects.
When most people think immigration in Maine, they think of refugees. Refugees come from overseas camps, typically after fleeing war-torn countries.
The United States, in a humanitarian capacity, agrees to accept a certain number of these refugees, who are relocated to a U.S. city that has a certain designation. They gain legal refugee status, are able to work, and they receive federal benefits for seven years. As such, they are “documented,” and would not be affected by the change in GA policy.
Asylum-seekers would, however, as would people who’ve entered the country illegally, for any number of reasons.
Asylum-seekers are fleeing oppressive regimes. They have been subject to detention and torture. They have been actively persecuted for their views and actions.
They escape to the U.S., where they are on short-term visas. Once here, they can begin to fill out the application for asylum status, a painstaking process that can take years.
ON THEIR OWN
Asylum seekers typically arrive with little money and no place to stay.
They don’t know the language well. They are not allowed to work. They are not eligible for most assistance programs. They rely on vouchers – not cash – for food, housing, medication and heating oil, at amounts typically below the poverty level.
Take that away, and they will be on the street, not on the way back to their home countries. That will further stretch a social safety net that is already frayed.
But depending on how “illegal immigrant” is defined and interpreted in the new policy – the DHHS has not offered details – asylum-seekers could be denied assistance for months or years.
Others would fall into the same trouble, such as people who are here as crime or trafficking victims and are waiting for their cases to move slowly through immigration services.
Any way the policy goes would have unintended consequences as well.
If, for instance, immigrants who have submitted applications are deemed eligible for assistance, they may rush to complete the complex, detailed documents, which can take dozens of hours to finish and require the help of an attorney. They risk making an error in a situation in which even a minor mistake can mean denial.
In any case, wading through the immigration morass will be left to the already overburdened municipalities.
And to what end? To deny the basic necessities to people who have risked everything to come to Maine, at a time when our population is stagnant and aging? To push away a population that largely wants to work and build a life here, a population that includes skilled workers and has shown they can overcome the odds?
There are better remedies. The state could seek help from the federal government. Officials could call for immigration reform, long overdue in any case.
But cutting off necessary aid to a relatively few immigrants who are here for the right reasons is not only inhumane, it’s wrong for the state.