The Maine House of Representatives on Monday gave initial approval to a bill to restore General Assistance payments for people seeking asylum, though not by a wide enough margin to override the inevitable veto from Gov. LePage.

If the bill ultimately fails, that would leave it to individual municipalities, Portland chief among them, to provide shelter, food, clothing and other necessities to these new arrivals.

That’s unfair, given that this should be a statewide responsibility. But when the alternative is perhaps hundreds of people homeless and hungry, including many children, there is only one right answer – for Portland and the other communities with asylum seekers to find room in their municipal budgets for aid.

All the vast majority of asylum seekers want is a chance to live free from fear of persecution, and to build a new life in what they see as a land of freedom and opportunity.

For years, Maine has given them that chance by providing General Assistance aid, mostly from the state budget, for rent, food, clothing, medication and other basic needs to asylum applicants until they get federal permission to work.

But last year, the issue was injected into the larger debate over welfare reform by LePage, who informed municipalities that they would no longer be reimbursed for GA payments made to legal noncitizens. A court ruling later affirmed the governor’s right to withhold these payments.

However, the Legislature has been debating L.D. 369, which would make asylum seekers eligible for GA for up to 24 months. The bill passed easily in the Senate last week and the House on Monday, but it is unlikely to get past the governor’s desk, and it doesn’t have the votes to override a veto.

That’s unfortunate. Besides simply being the right thing to do, providing limited aid to asylum seekers will help the entire state in the long run.

Asylum seekers are not “illegal aliens,” as the governor incorrectly and shamefully calls them.

In Maine, they overwhelmingly come from African countries torn apart by violence and political persecution. They come here legally and stay legally, while their applications are processed, which takes at least six months and usually longer.

In that time, they are not allowed to work, a problem that – along with the application backlog – must be addressed at the federal level.

So the asylum seekers, half of whom have college degrees, must wait, unable to return home for fear of reprisal but also unable to support themselves and their families here.

But once they can work, they are often successful. Because of the support of Maine taxpayers, former asylum seekers have opened businesses and become respected community members. They’ve raised families – even moving out of the cities and to the suburbs – and brought much-needed new blood and diversity to the state’s schools and workforce.

That’s something a state with an aging population and a stagnant workforce shouldn’t pass up.

There is still time for lawmakers to do the right thing and authorize aid for asylum seekers.

If not, Portland should take the lead, and show that Maine can still do right for a population that only wants to have a future in our state.

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