Gov. Janet Mills is relaxing restrictions on General Assistance eligibility to allow more asylum seekers to qualify for the welfare benefits, reversing a LePage administration policy in response to a recent surge in migrants.

Mills said the new policy announced Thursday is aimed at assisting the hundreds of asylum seekers who have legally arrived in Maine in recent months while ultimately helping Maine businesses struggling to fill jobs.

The shift also could help ease the financial burden facing Portland – which was sheltering 223 individuals at the Portland Expo as of Thursday morning – because it would allow asylum seekers to receive state-funded General Assistance in other municipalities as they await federal work permits.

“Let’s put an end to the complaints, put aside the politics, and do the logical thing – welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy,” Mills, a Democrat elected last year, wrote in an op-ed to the Portland Press Herald.

Portland officials praised the move as humane and good for the state’s long-term economy. Some Republican leaders, meanwhile, called it an example of the Mills administration’s misplaced priorities while predicting the policy would divert money needed to support the elderly and disabled in Maine.

Emergency rules adopted by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will enable non-citizens to apply for General Assistance, or GA, as long as they can prove they are taking “reasonable good faith steps” to apply for asylum with federal officials. The administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, in contrast, required non-citizens to complete the lengthy and complicated asylum application process before they could qualify for state-subsidized GA.

“Help does not come in the form of cash, but in vouchers used to purchase basic items like food, medications, housing, and other essential services from select vendors,” Mills said in the op-ed. “This amended rule assists cash-strapped municipalities dealing with an unexpected influx of people, and it motivates all families who are lawfully present in our state to complete every step on the path to asylum and, hopefully, on the path to citizenship.”

Marcelo Kaluba said he fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after threats from the government and now hopes to pursue the American dream. The assistance will help him, his wife and 10-month-old daughter, Mulanga Bankuna, get the start they need, he said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine policymakers have been grappling for years over how much taxpayer-backed assistance to provide to the growing population of asylum seekers. That debate intensified amid the recent surge of migrants to Portland.

Hundreds of asylum seekers – including many parents with young children – have arrived in Portland in recent weeks after fleeing violence, persecution and strife in Central Africa. Most crossed the U.S. border with Mexico following a weeks-long journey and, after being processed by border or immigration agents, opted to travel to Maine.

Portland is among the few cities nationwide to provide public assistance to non-citizens through a special Community Support Fund that helps asylum seekers pay for rent, food and medicine and other necessities. Portland also has a growing population of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

While Portland has received more than $800,000 in donations to assist the asylum seekers, city officials have been working with the Mills administration on changing the GA rules.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said the city was “very supportive” of the change announced Thursday. Like Mills, Jennings framed the rules change in economic and workforce terms, and predicted – or hoped – that other municipalities would be willing to help shelter asylum seekers since the state will cover 70 percent of GA costs.

“If I were in the private sector, I would see this as an investment,” Jennings said. “This is temporary and once (asylum seekers) are permitted to work, these folks will be incredible contributors to Maine’s economy. … While the City of Portland was proud that we were able to help in the emergency stage of this situation, it is apparent now that the work the governor has done will allow other cities and towns to be able to move forward to bring people there.”

The scene Thursday at the Portland Expo – a sports arena temporarily turned into a shelter for more than 200 people – was much the same as other days as families came and went from the building. Inside, young children napped on the folding cots while a group of older kids tossed a beach ball with one of the volunteers.

Two fathers said through an interpreter they were relieved to learn that the state’s GA program would be accessible to them.

Marcelo Kaluba said he fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after threats from the government and now hopes to pursue the American dream. The assistance will help him, his wife and 10-month-old daughter get the start they need, he said.

Manuel Pedro came to Portland from Angola with his wife and two young children. Pedro had begun to lose hope of building a new life in the United States after several weeks at the Expo. But after hearing his family would be eligible for assistance, Pedro said he has hope again.

“(Assistance) will certainly help,” Pedro said. “It also gives me motivation to integrate into society and become an American.”

Mills said the new DHHS rules are more in line with the intent of a 2015 state law that declared that non-citizens who are “lawfully present” or are “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief” would be eligible for General Assistance welfare benefits.

Manuel Pedro came to Portland from Angola with his wife and two young children. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The LePage administration narrowly interpreted the law in 2016, however, to provide assistance only to non-citizens who complete and submit a federal application for asylum. It can take many months for a newly arrived asylum seeker to complete and file a formal application and often years for their case to be decided.

LePage sparred with Portland for years over GA funding and succeeded in reducing the state’s contributions to the city’s welfare program. Mills, who opposed the LePage administration’s interpretation when she served as the state’s attorney general, is now dismantling those and other LePage policies.

Mills said the change also will help with the long-term goal of addressing Maine’s workforce shortage, although it will take time for the new arrivals to enter the labor pool. Non-citizens are prohibited by federal law from applying for work permits until six months after submitting an asylum application.

Maine DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell estimates that the changes will cost the state “several hundred thousand dollars, not more than a million dollars” and that there are sufficient funds in the state’s GA fund to cover those additional costs.

A bill rejected during the 2019 legislative session that would have enabled asylum seekers to qualify for a broader range of welfare benefits – including food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in addition to General Assistance – carried an anticipated cost of $7 million annually.

In a related letter that Mills sent Thursday, she urged Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to send to Maine part of $30 million recently allocated by Congress to address the flood of migrants crossing the southern border. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, in a separate letter, urged FEMA officials to develop a funding formula to distribute those funds to communities dealing with an influx of migrants.

“The state of Maine, the city of Portland, surrounding municipalities, private businesses, charitable and faith-based organizations, residents, and many others have all stepped up to help meet the most basic needs of those newly arrived in Maine,” Mills wrote to Michael Lee, chairman of FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program. “I believe it is time for the federal government to do its part, too.”

Welfare for non-citizens became a flashpoint in the final days of the 2019 legislative session in Augusta. While the Maine House voted largely along party lines to pass a watered-down version of the bill allowing asylum seekers to qualify for GA and other welfare programs, it was never brought up for a vote in the Maine Senate.

On Thursday, the Maine Republican Party accused Mills of prioritizing non-citizens over the elderly and other Mainers who are on wait lists for social services programs.

In a fundraising appeal to supporters, Republican officials repeated their criticism of Mills delaying action on a bill that would have provided $1.4 million in the next two-year state budget to help nursing homes cover their increasing labor costs. The Mills administration has said the Legislature needs to fix the bill to avoid Maine losing federal funding.

“Janet Mills is ‘bailing out’ Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and providing state welfare dollars to hundreds (eventually thousands) of non-citizens while our nursing homes struggle to stay open and care for elderly Mainers across our state,” Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage wrote in the appeal to donors. “We have plans for Janet Mills in 2022, but right now, we need to work on getting the word out about her terrible positions and the destruction our nursing homes are facing while she pulls off the Portland bailout.”

But Strimling, who has welcomed the asylum seekers to Portland, said Mills had “restored a little bit of humanity in the state” by ending a LePage-era policy Strimling said was inhumane. He said Mills’ decision could be viewed as a worker recruitment program, given that many of the asylum seekers arriving in Maine are highly skilled or educated.

“Towns are very shortsighted if they don’t recognize what an opportunity this is,” Strimling said. “It makes me very sad that we don’t have the housing in Portland because I would like these families to stay here. … Our state needs young, skilled families. And when Governor LePage put this (policy) in place, it really was detrimental to the state by making it harder for young families to come here.”

Staff Writer Kate Lusignan contributed to this report.

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