December 28, 2013

Immigrant backers join forces to oppose LePage rule change

The governor wants to keep asylum seekers from receiving state-funded General Assistance money.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Advocates are forming a coalition to oppose Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to prohibit asylum seekers and some other immigrants from receiving state-funded General Assistance benefits.

Hope Acts, a faith-based nonprofit group that helps asylum seekers in Portland, is recruiting people to make financial contributions, submit public comments and attend a rally before a public hearing in Augusta.

“There will be opportunities for individuals to testify against this oppressive policy change,” Hope Acts said Friday in an email to supporters.

Advocates estimate that more than 1,000 immigrants who are seeking asylum in Maine would lose access to General Assistance, a local- and state-funded program that is a last resort for people who lack shelter, food and other aid.

LePage has made welfare reform a priority in his three years as governor. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, referred questions about the proposed rule change Friday to the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers General Assistance.

DHHS spokesman John Martins said earlier this week that the proposal would align Maine’s program with federal rules, which don’t provide benefits to immigrants until they have been in the country for five years. General Assistance is funded entirely by the state or local governments.

Martins did not respond to an email requesting comment Friday.

Advocates have time to collect testimony from those who would be affected and turn out a crowd for the public hearing on the proposal Jan. 10, said Alain Nahimana, the immigration and racial justice organizer of the left-leaning Maine People’s Alliance and the staff coordinator for the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Nahimana said advocates will hold a conference next week to formulate a plan of action. Mobilizing against statewide proposals that target immigrants is nothing new, he said. “We’ve been doing this since 2010 and we’re going to be doing it again.”

The latest proposal would affect primarily new immigrants who are not yet citizens and are not 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.

Asylum seekers typically are more educated than refugees and have more skills to find work, but they’re not eligible to take jobs until 150 days after filing their applications for asylum. The federal government provides communities with funding to help resettle refugees, but it does not do so for asylum seekers, so they turn to General Assistance, which is based only on financial need, not citizenship status.

The state generally pays half of a community’s General Assistance costs. But cities like Lewiston and Portland receive a higher reimbursement because the need is greater.

Martins has said the DHHS hasn’t analyzed how much it would save by making the change.

In fiscal year 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 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, said Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

Nahimana, the organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, fled Burundi in February 2011 and was granted asylum in September 2011. Without General Assistance, he likely would have ended up in a shelter.

The day after he received his work permit, he was hired by the alliance, he said.

The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which helps immigrants through the asylum process, has been inundated with requests in recent years. Executive Director Sue Roche said she fears that the rule change would cause immigrants to submit incomplete asylum applications without help from attorneys.

The influx of asylum seekers to Portland has compelled faith-based groups like Hope Acts, which is affiliated with Portland’s United Methodist community, to help. Hope Acts offers the Justice of Our Neighbors legal clinic for dozens of asylum seekers. The group also operates a supportive housing complex for asylum seekers in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood.

“We’re doing what we can,” said Jennifer Dimond, president of the group’s board. “Our fear is that people are going to fall through the cracks.”

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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