AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate passed a bill Thursday that would allow asylum seekers to continue receiving General Assistance, buoying hopes among immigrant advocates who days earlier saw their efforts falter amid last-minute budget negotiations.

In a 29-5 vote, Democrats and Republicans bucked the LePage administration by adding language to the proposal to allow immigrants who are considered “lawfully present” in the United States or are seeking asylum to receive General Assistance for up to two years. The bill, which explicitly prohibits welfare for immigrants in the country illegally, later passed the Senate and was sent to the House.

The issue has been particularly important to Portland-area representatives, who fear as many as 1,000 immigrants could lose eligibility for emergency assistance on July 1 without a policy change.

The measure’s fate is far from clear, however. Supporters will have to not only hold that Republican support in the Senate but also pick up enough support from House Republicans – a group clamoring for welfare reform – to override an all-but-certain veto if the bill makes it to Gov. Paul LePage’s desk.

“The vote was a good sign that there is strong bipartisan support, so hopefully we will see the same thing in the House,” said Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of immigrants and low-income Mainers. “It truly is a compromise, so we are hopeful that people will come together to prevent the humanitarian crisis that will result if it is not passed.”

But the bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn, cautioned against reading too much into Thursday’s 29-5 vote. Brakey believes many of his Republican colleagues who voted for the 24-month-cap language on GA benefits were only voting to make what was by then a Democratic bill “less bad” and would ultimately side with LePage on a veto.

“If they are counting on there being only five opponents in the Senate, then they are counting the wrong vote,” Brakey said, pointing to an earlier roll call in which 13 Republicans voted to prohibit asylum seekers from receiving GA.


Merrill and other advocates for asylum-seeking immigrants had little to cheer about just two days earlier.

In the final hours of a weeks-long political drama over the state’s two-year budget, lawmakers eliminated public assistance for immigrants who are seeking asylum and, in many cases, are not allowed to work because of a federal waiting period. Welfare became a key sticking point in the budget negotiations, and most Portland lawmakers voted against the budget because it failed to authorize continued General Assistance benefits for asylum seekers.

Without additional legislative action, Portland city officials will be forced to decide between raising property taxes – by an estimated $130 a year for a $200,000 home – to provide $4 million to $5 million in General Assistance to asylum seekers, or cut off emergency assistance to nearly 1,000 city residents.

Portland could have to decide Wednesday, when councilors are scheduled to approve a new city budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The City Council was originally scheduled to vote on its budget May 18, but has twice delayed that vote in hopes of getting more clarity about the state budget. Officials said there is no contingency plan in place if aid is cut off after June 30.

During Thursday’s debate, Portland-area lawmakers urged their colleagues to continue supporting a population that is fleeing political persecution, death threats and torture in their home countries, often in central Africa. Many of Maine’s asylum seekers are professionals or business owners who arrive in the U.S. on work or visitation visas but then apply for asylum after their visas expire, as allowed under federal law.

They are prohibited from working under federal law for at least six months after applying for asylum, however, and a backlog in the immigration system means many wait years for a decision on their asylum application.

“If any of you had the possibility of 1,000 or more people becoming homeless in a matter of weeks, I think you would be fighting very hard,” said Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland.


The LePage administration has been locked in a legal battle with the cities of Portland and Westbrook for months over LePage’s policy of refusing to reimburse municipalities for General Assistance paid to asylum seekers and other immigrants without valid visas. A court sided with the administration several weeks ago, upping the ante for immigrant advocates to secure  legislative language allowing the expenditures.

Brakey noted that Maine is one of only four states that provides these welfare benefits to legal non-citizens such as asylum seekers. As a result, Brakey and others have said, Maine has become a destination for immigrants, putting a financial strain on state and municipal General Assistance coffers.

Brakey said he wants to support asylum seekers, but the reality is that Maine has a lengthy waiting list for elderly, disabled and other Mainers in need of assistance. LePage has condemned lawmakers for eliminating his proposals to apply additional funding to cover people now awaiting aid.

“The truth is it’s expensive and we need to set priorities,” Brakey said. “I would love to have an unlimited amount of resources to distribute to everyone, but we have a $40 million wait list … that was not fully funded in the budget that was just passed.”

Sen. Amy Volk, the Scarborough Republican who sponsored the amendment creating a 24-month cap on General Assistance, shared her family’s story of taking in immigrants from Burundi who attended her church but were living in a homeless shelter. Eight years later, Volk said the family is thriving on its own, with both parents employed and the children succeeding in school.

“They are amazing people and that has been my experience with this population,” Volk said.