The city of Portland is bracing for a new wave of General Assistance requests from asylum seekers who will lose state-funded food stamps and emergency vouchers next month because a program has run out of money.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has begun notifying at least 50 asylum seekers statewide who can legally work but are unemployed that welfare benefits will end next month because the state has exhausted the $261,000 earmarked for the program in the current state budget. Without access to state-funded food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, many of those households are expected to apply for General Assistance provided by cash-strapped municipalities.

The shift will put additional financial pressure on cities such as Portland that already are locked in a legal fight with the LePage administration over whether hundreds of other asylum applicants already ineligible for state-funded food stamps or TANF should be eligible for General Assistance. DHHS officials have said they could withhold General Assistance reimbursements to communities – valued at more $3 million in Portland this fiscal year – that defy the policy to cut off assistance to non-citizens who have not been granted asylum.

The shift was not a complete surprise to Portland, spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said, but complicates the city’s financial situation as it awaits court rulings over the General Assistance issue and for the LePage administration to respond to the first reimbursement requests since the new policy went into effect.

“We knew this was coming but we didn’t know the exact date,” Grondin said. “This obviously will add to the uncertainties that we are facing.”

Portland, Lewiston and a handful of other Maine cities have seen an influx of immigrants from central African countries who legally entered the United States with visas but then filed for asylum on the grounds they would be persecuted in their home countries. Many asylum seekers wait years for a decision on their applications because of a backlog at the federal level. And under federal law, applicants must wait at least six months before seeking federal work permits, prompting many to rely on public assistance during that time.


For years, immigration reform advocates have been urging federal officials to eliminate the mandatory waiting period for work permits, arguing that the delay needlessly penalizes asylum seekers who are following the legal process and puts a strain on social services programs. President Obama, frustrated with Republican inaction on immigration reform, is expected to use his executive authority Thursday to change the work permit process for undocumented immigrants. It was unclear Wednesday whether the changes would apply to asylum seekers.

They are now at the center of a political and legal fight between the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, who wants to limit welfare benefits to asylum seekers, and municipalities such as Portland that argue the state has an obligation to assist immigrants as they await decisions from the overburdened federal system.

Asylum seekers’ eligibility for welfare in Maine depends on a host of complex factors dictated largely by where an individual falls in the federal asylum application process. The group affected by the depletion of the $261,000 program are individuals who have filed an application for asylum with federal immigration officials and have received a federal work permit but are not yet working.

“The funding was for state-funded food supplement and TANF benefits for undocumented aliens seeking asylum who had the documents needed to work but were not working,” DHHS spokesman John Martins said in an email. “The funds have been depleted.”

It was unclear Wednesday how many households will be affected by the shift, however, because DHHS has provided different estimates.

Martins said about 50 households that receive food stamps – representing 128 individuals – would lose benefits. But Terry Hamilton, who heads the DHHS Office for Family Independence in Portland, said in an email to city officials earlier this week that about 75 families in Cumberland County would be affected by the program’s shutdown. Hamilton wrote that she did not have a residency breakdown of those 75 households, but “I would think most of them are in Portland.”


Asked about the discrepancy, Martins stood by the figures of 50 households and 128 individuals. Hamilton was not in the office Wednesday, and staff at the Portland office referred media calls to Martins.

Since 1996, the federal government has prohibited many types of non-resident immigrants – including asylum seekers – from receiving food stamps and TANF paid for with federal funds. States are allowed to offer state-funded welfare benefits, however. Maine was one of seven states in 2011 to offer state-only food stamps to some immigrants who were ineligible for federal benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Figures for Maine’s state-funded food stamp and TANF programs were not available Wednesday. However, the average monthly food stamp benefit paid out by the federal government in Maine was $235 per household in fiscal year 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federally funded TANF benefits averaged $485 per month for a three-person household in July 2013, according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis.

Robyn Merrill, a staff member at the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the DHHS funding was provided after a working group was formed to examine ways to trim spending on General Assistance. The group recommended continuing to provide financial help to asylum seekers who are looking for jobs after receiving work permits in order to reduce the burden on the few municipalities where asylum seekers typically settle. Merrill said the reality is that asylum applicants must wait at least 150 days before even applying for a federal work permit, and they often face additional delays before they actually begin earning a paycheck.

“I heard from a number of people who said this creates a hardship because, after you receive your work permit, it takes some time to find a job,” Merrill said.

Portland officials are already preparing to take a financial hit because of the dispute with the LePage administration over reimbursements for General Assistance. The city has frozen hiring and is limiting overtime in anticipation of losing more than $3 million in state reimbursements this fiscal year. Now the city is facing the prospect of several dozen more asylum seekers applying for General Assistance after losing access to state-funded food stamps and TANF.

Immigrants who apply for General Assistance in Portland while awaiting a federal decision on their applications for asylum receive, on average, $850 per month from the city to help them pay for rent, food, medicine and other needs. Robert Duranleau, with Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, estimated that 50 additional requests for General Assistance would cost the city $42,500 a month.

The state Legislature will have to decide during its session beginning in January whether to refund the program at the start of the next fiscal year July 1.

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