The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is currently in the midst of the rulemaking process on the matter of providing General Assistance benefits to immigrants.

Earlier this year, I proposed and voted in support of an amended bill that allows certain immigrant populations to receive General Assistance benefits for a time period of 24 months. Unfortunately, the rules that are currently being proposed by the DHHS contradict the intent of that bill, which became law earlier this year.

I come at the issue of immigration in Maine, specifically regarding those seeking asylum, from a personal perspective. Nine years ago, I met a newly arrived couple from Burundi at church. They, along with their son, were staying at a homeless shelter. They were expecting another baby and had a lead on an apartment, but it wasn’t ready yet.

It bothered me that their first experiences in America would be at a homeless shelter, so I offered to take them in until they could move into their apartment. They arrived at our house the next day with just two suitcases – all they had with which to make a new life. Helping them navigate language barriers and cultural differences was eye-opening.

It is incredibly rewarding now to see how our friends have “paid it forward” by helping other new Mainers. They also serve as amazing role models, with one having achieved an associate degree and the other landing a job working for the state of Maine.

They own their own home and are raising two wonderful boys. The investment that the state of Maine and the city of Portland made in this family has paid off, and they are no longer on any public assistance.

In my heart, I am passionate about protecting our immigrant population, but my head also knows that Maine needs more new citizens, not fewer. As the Senate chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee for the Maine Legislature and the wife of a man who employs close to 100 people in manufacturing, half of whom are now over 50, I am acutely aware that we have a workforce problem in this state.

The legislative intent of my two-year GA amendment is to allow asylees a grace period in which to become able to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

The way that the DHHS has proposed these rules seems to mostly cover those already eligible for federal benefits while excluding those who have no other access to support. If people can access other benefits, they probably do not need General Assistance.

The law was intended to cover those who are lawfully present, or “permanently residing under color of law,” which is the wording the federal government and Maine have used to define the term “lawfully present” for public benefits eligibility.

Of course we want asylum-seekers to get their cases going as soon as possible; however, these rules will have the effect of making people rush their applications rather than waiting to work with a knowledgeable attorney or organization like the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. Cases that are filed improperly result in a longer wait for a work permit.

The law was intended to cover those who are in the process of preparing their applications for filing, not just those whose cases are already pending. Those who have had their cases referred to an immigration judge have been excluded from General Assistance in these rules. Unfortunately, these are folks who already face a longer process and an extended wait for their work permit.

Last year, asylees were 63 percent of Portland’s GA recipients. They are a proud, often well-educated group. They are also motivated. Asylees had the wherewithal to get here so they can make a new life for themselves, and they have no interest in remaining on welfare once they get their feet under them. They represent a unique opportunity to invest in Maine’s future, boosting our workforce, diversifying our communities and enriching our state.

I testified on these points at the DHHS’ public hearing on the rules recently. It is my hope that the department will take legislative intent, the realities of Maine’s demographic winter, the need to boost our workforce and the value of having a strong immigrant population into consideration when taking final action.