By Ramona du Houx
The Maine House on Tuesday voted 83 to 66 along party lines to support an amendment to the state budget that would prevent legal non-citizens, including asylum seekers, from losing much-needed housing and food assistance.
Under the measure introduced by Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, any person who is unlawfully present in the state would be ineligible for General Assistance. The amendment is required to affirm that legal non-citizens, including asylum seekers, who are fleeing detention, rape, torture and other forms of persecution in foreign countries, are still eligible for the welfare program.
“We are a nation of immigrants – the Great Melting Pot. However, our immigrant forebears mostly had one thing in common. They came here legally,” Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, the amendment sponsor. “If you are here legally, looking to work legally and contribute to our Maine economy legally, we will help as best we can.”
The amendment was added to the $6.7 billion budget during the House vote.
Asylum seekers and other legal non-citizens came to the State House today to urge lawmakers to support the protections in the law. Under federal law, these individuals must obtain work permits to get a job. For asylum seekers, these work permits can take months to approve and often many of them rely on General Assistance as a last resort for food and shelter.
During the floor debate, lawmakers shared the stories of these asylum seekers.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, who served as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq, shared one story of a woman named Nemia from Djibouti.
Nemia came here with her husband. They were the beneficiaries of General Assistance for less than one year. Once their asylum request was adjudicated and her husband was given a work permit he got a job at L.L. Bean and has been working there for more than three years.
Golden said, “As a Marine I took great pride in standing up for people that are not in the position to stand up for themselves. How could I do anything less as a legislator without betraying the values the Marines instilled in me?”
The LePage administration has been in a pitched legal battle for the last year over General Assistance funding for municipalities, holding up payments to cities for legal non-citizens. Several cities, including Portland and Westbrook, sued the state. In a ruling last week, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren affirmed the state’s right to withhold funding for aid to immigrants who are ineligible under federal law.
“At the end of the day we cannot turn our backs on these people who so desperately need our help because I cannot dishonor my own people. Our ancestors who struggled and worked and fought in wars to make sure we could be here and stand here today,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “The people we are trying to help here are just like us. Just like us. And if we turn away from them we are turning away from ourselves and turning away from all of the people who brought us here.”