AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted Monday to allow asylum seekers and other “lawfully present” immigrants to receive General Assistance welfare benefits, but the bill didn’t receive enough support to overcome a likely gubernatorial veto.

The House’s 81-63 vote is yet another twist in a contentious and emotional debate with implications for the Portland area’s growing immigrant population and for city taxpayers.

Roughly 1,000 asylum-seeking immigrants could lose access to General Assistance next month, thereby forcing local officials to choose between shouldering those costs – estimated at $4 million to $5 million in Portland alone – or cut off immigrants from a primary source of assistance until they can legally work in the U.S. The bill’s opponents, meanwhile, accuse supporters of being more interested in providing welfare to immigrants than in reducing the backlog of elderly and disabled Mainers waiting for assistance.

Although the fate of the measure remains unclear, Monday’s House vote did not bode well for supporters. They would need to pick up roughly 20 votes to override an all-but-certain veto from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration has worked to stop state-funded General Assistance benefits from flowing to asylum seekers.

House lawmakers added language to L.D. 369 that would limit “lawfully present” immigrants to two years of General Assistance, the temporary assistance program that provides emergency vouchers for housing, heat, medicine and other basic necessities. The Senate voted 29-5 last week to establish the two-year cap on GA benefits for asylum seekers and other lawfully present immigrants.

“I don’t think we can afford to turn our backs on these families,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, whose city has one of the largest populations of asylum-seeking immigrants. “Providing assistance to asylum seekers is a relatively small investment today that will pay dividends into our future.”


The Portland region and, to a lesser extent, the city of Lewiston have experienced an influx of immigrants settling in Maine as they seek asylum in the United States from persecution in war-torn or politically troubled nations in central Africa. Unlike the large numbers of Central American asylum seekers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most asylum seekers living in Maine arrive in the U.S. legally on work or visitation visas, and apply for asylum after their visas expire.

Federal law prohibits asylum seekers from applying for work permits for at least six months after they file for asylum, a provision that lawmakers and activists on both sides of the GA debate said should be changed. But the growing number of asylum seekers in Maine – some of whom are drawn to the state because it offers welfare to non-citizens – is putting a financial strain on the GA program.

Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had sought roughly $46 million in LePage’s budget proposal to reduce the lengthy waiting list for elderly, disabled and other Mainers in need of assistance. Lawmakers only funded one-third of that request, she said.

“We are not funding these (programs) appropriately,” Sanderson said. “We are leaving Maine people behind, our must vulnerable of citizens. And yet here we are expanding General Assistance benefits to people who aren’t even from the state.”

That line of reasoning angered some lawmakers. Speakers on Monday countered that while Maine needs to address the waiting list, the state also must support immigrants who, because of federal work prohibitions, have no other way to legally support themselves despite college degrees or business experience in their native countries.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, said it was “unconscionable” for opponents to attempt to pit asylum seekers against disabled or elderly Mainers.


“It’s a thinly veiled excuse for not standing up to our responsibility to everyone as human beings,” Stuckey said.

The bill now goes back to the Senate for additional votes, potentially on Tuesday.

The sponsor of the original bill, Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn, opposes providing General Assistance to asylum seekers. Brakey predicted that, despite last week’s 29-5 Senate vote to establish the two-year cap on General Assistance eligibility, enough Senate Republicans would side with the LePage administration and kill the bill should the governor veto the measure.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan declined on Monday to say whether he would recommend that the City Council fund the General Assistance program – either temporarily or for a full year – should the House not pass the bill by a margin large enough to overcome a LePage veto. Providing the aid to asylum seekers for the next 12 months would cost the city an estimated $4 million to $5 million, which would translate to about $130 a year in additional taxes for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.