Photo of rally to protect General Assistance for asylum seekers and refugees in May, 2015
By Ramona du Houx
Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren ruled today that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) overstepped its authority and acted illegally in its efforts to force municipalities to deny General Assistance to non-U.S. citizens who are lawfully in the country.
“The court has declared that the Department of Health and Humans Services exceeded its authority and acted unlawfully,” said Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “The department’s efforts to deny life-saving assistance to asylum seekers and other legal immigrants cannot be supported by the law.”
The Legislature has an opportunity to settle the dispute by clarifying its intent in regards to providing assistance to asylum seekers and others in the country legally, a practice that dates back to the beginnings of General Assistance in Maine.
“It’s a tragedy that lives are hanging in the balance when the Legislature could easily resolve this issue and protect hundreds of Maine’s most vulnerable residents and prevent them from becoming homeless,” said Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners. “The Legislature should make clear that asylum seekers and others in the country legally should receive General Assistance.”
In July 2014, MEJP and the ACLU joined a lawsuit challenging administrative action taken by DHHS to deny General Assistance to asylum seekers and other immigrants in Maine lawfully.
DHHS Commission Mary Mayhew first proposed denying general assistance to some immigrants in December 2013. Following a public hearing attended by nearly 200 people who opposed the rule change, DHHS submitted the proposal to the Maine attorney general for legal approval. In May 2014, the attorney general informed DHHS that the rule would not be approved as it was likely unconstitutional
Rather than withdraw the proposal, Mayhew altered it to deny General Assistance to even more categories of immigrants and informed municipalities that the state would no longer reimburse them for general assistance payments made to the specified people.
Further, Gov. Paul LePage declared that the state would cut off reimbursement for all general assistance payments, not only those made to immigrants, to towns that did not adopt the rule change.
“General Assistance provides temporary support for people who are trying to build a new life after escaping terrible violence,” Merrill said. “The vast majority of people impacted by this change are asylum seekers who are lawfully seeking refuge here. They are caught in legal limbo, unable to work and with few resources. The LePage administration is playing politics with people’s lives.”
The complaint charged that DHHS failed to follow the required rulemaking procedure for implementing such a change. It further charged that denying General Assistance on the basis of immigration status constitutes illegal discrimination.
The original case was filed by the Maine Municipal Association, as well as the cities of Portland and Westbrook. The complaint, along with more information about the plaintiffs, can be found online at:www.aclumaine.org/juma-v-mayhew