The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has initiated a rulemaking process regarding when asylum-seeking immigrants qualify for state-funded public assistance.

Last year, DHHS began providing food stamps and emergency cash assistance to asylum seekers while they seek employment after Maine’s highest court ruled against efforts to deny benefits by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

Before the court ruling, the Republican administration had stopped providing food stamps and temporary cash assistance to asylum seekers who had been authorized to work but had not yet found a job, as part of its broader effort to reduce welfare benefits for the growing population of immigrants in Maine.

Last Wednesday, DHHS released proposed rules based on the court ruling. While the rulemaking process began under LePage, a spokesman for Gov. Janet Mills – who was inaugurated last Wednesday – said the Democrat does not plan to make changes to the proposed rules.

The state estimates that providing food stamp and cash-assistance benefits to roughly 150 legally present asylum seekers will cost roughly $1 million a year.

Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said all people in Maine – including asylum seekers – should have access to help when they fall on hard times. The nonprofit organization had sued the LePage administration on behalf of asylum seekers who had received their work authorization from the federal government but were still looking for employment when they lost access to the welfare programs.

“This is really cleaning up the rules,” Merrill said. “From a policy perspective, we see this as a positive thing and a step in the right direction.”

DHHS is accepting public comment on the proposed rules through Feb. 1. For more information, go to: http://legislature.maine.gov/publicrulemaking/Public.aspx

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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