|5/29/2014 11:28:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Attorney General Rejects Governor's Plan to Cut Emergency Benefits for Refugees
|Burundian asylum seekers Edna Thecla Akimana and Claudette Ndayininahaze, who were profiled in the January 16, 2014, Free Press article “Members of Maine’s |
Asylum Seeker Community Tell Their Stories.” (Photo by Andy O’Brien )
by Andy O’BrienLast week the Maine Attorney General's Office announced that it would not approve a proposal by the LePage administration to deny emergency assistance to asylum seekers and other immigrants on the grounds that the proposed rule change is unconstitutional and an unfunded mandate on cities and towns.
It's been estimated that under the proposed rules at least 1,000 new immigrants to Maine would have lost emergency support for food and housing. The Attorney General's decision was applauded by members of the refugee community, faith leaders and advocates for the poor who organized 200 people to testify at a public hearing in January and collected 2,600 signatures to oppose the rule change.
Alain Nahimana, a refugee from Burundi and coordinator of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, said that many in the refugee community were worried about the rule changes because general assistance (GA) is considered a lifeline for asylum seekers.
"Not only did immigrant communities come together to oppose this proposal that would have devastated our communities, but we also saw thousands of concerned Maine residents come forward to support this basic safety net for Maine's recent immigrants," said Nahimana in a written statement. "We saw the positive impact that Maine people can have on the democratic process when they get involved. We are so happy that state officials heard us all and responded to our concerns."
Under the rule change, municipalities would have been allowed to continue granting GA to non-citizens, but the state would not provide any reimbursement for it. Usually a last resort for low-income Mainers, GA is a state-mandated program that provides emergency assistance to individuals with little or no income to meet basic needs like food and shelter. The program has become an emergency safety net for low-income Mainers, especially since state and federal programs have been cut in recent years.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Maine is one of only 12 states that provide General Assistance to childless adults who have no disabilities.
In a written statement DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said she was disappointed that Attorney General Janet Mills rejected the proposal. "Prohibiting the use of state funds for benefits to non-citizens is a commonsense measure that aligns state policy with federal requirements for other welfare programs like Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families," said Mayhew.
A Haven for Those Fleeing Violence and Persecution
In recent years, Maine has become known to many central African asylum seekers as a place where they can find community support as well as temporary financial assistance while they have their visas and work permits approved. Fleeing violence and persecution from countries like Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, asylum seekers often arrive on tourist or business visas, sometimes with forged documents. While many asylum seekers are well educated and come from financial means, the money doesn't last long and many end up in homeless shelters while their applications are being processed.
Maine does not require proof of citizenship to receive GA. Asylum seekers must only prove that they are in financial need and are applying for asylum. Unlike official refugees, such as many in the Somali and Sudanese populations who are resettled in Maine by the U.S. State Department, asylum seekers do not qualify for any other state or federal benefits while they are applying for asylum. It typically takes at least 150 days for asylum seekers to be eligible to legally work once approved for asylum, and the whole asylum approval process can take from one to two years.
The maximum GA amount an individual with no income can receive is $812 a month, and Portland recipients reportedly spend 92 percent of that money on food and shelter. GA is funded by a percentage of state revenues and local property taxes, but urban service centers get a higher state reimbursement. In fiscal year 2012, municipalities provided $17.5 million in GA, of which $13.2 million came from the state budget. According to city documents, in FY 13, $2.3 million of Portland's GA program was paid for by city property taxpayers and $7.4 million was paid by the state. As the state's largest city, Portland receives 40 percent of state funding for GA. In 2013, the City of Portland provided general assistance to 4,376 people, about 30 percent of whom identified as refugees, asylees, or visa holders.
In the A.G.'s memo to DHHS, Assistant Attorney General Justin Barnard wrote that the proposal violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution. "As it applies in these circumstances, equal protection prohibits a state benefit program from imposing different requirements or limitations on noncitizens than it imposes on citizens; the state must treat noncitizens and citizens alike with an even hand," he wrote. "Because [the rule change] would subject noncitizens to differential treatment with respect to eligibility for General Assistance, it is unconstitutional."
The A.G.'s office also stated that the rule change was an unfunded mandate, in violation of the Maine Constitution, because it would likely require local officials to expend more resources to verify the immigration status of GA applicants. Under Maine law, the state must provide 90 percent of the funding for any program expansion it mandates on municipalities. Finally, the A.G.'s office said the LePage administration appeared to exceed its authority to change the GA program and would likely need the approval of the Legislature, which had not been consulted.
Commissioner Mayhew said that DHHS would continue to allow reimbursements for documented non-citizens, but that she would be requesting the A.G. to sign off on another rule to end state reimbursement for immigrants in the US illegally.
"We hope that by narrowing the rule to prohibit state funds from being used by illegal immigrants, we will get agreement from Attorney General Mills to move forward," said Mayhew. "The LePage administration remains committed to protecting our scarce resource for the people of Maine and this country, particularly the elderly and disabled."
Although Attorney General Janet Mills said she had not read Mayhew's latest proposal at the time she spoke to The Free Press, she said she would be unlikely to sign off on it.
"I can't imagine how the part-time town clerk of East Wallagrass, Maine, is going to determine the legality of somebody's immigration papers or the legality of somebody's presence in this country," said Mills. "The proposal would turn town officials across the state into mini-immigration agents, which they're not qualified to be. Even if it was paid for, it would put an impossible burden on the towns and cities of this state."
Since taking office in 2011, Gov. LePage has made it a priority to cut all assistance to legal non-citizens in Maine by eliminating Medicaid coverage, SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for legal non-citizens who have been in the US less than five years.
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