Governor Janet Mills, the first woman Governor of Maine, has pursued changes to the General Assistance program with far reaching benefits for asylum seekers as well as the economy of Maine she announced in a press release yesterday.
Specifically, the Maine Department of Health & Human Services is pursuing eligibility changes to ensure that the program includes people who are intended to receive assistance under the law. The change comes after several months of review by the Mills Administration of the program’s eligibility requirements and their alignment with a 2015 law. The Administration ultimately concluded that the current rules are not fully in line with the Legislature’s intent and thus changed them. Doing so will also prepare those seeking asylum to enter the workforce and strengthen Maine’s economy at a time when workers are desperately needed.
“We know the challenge facing us: a serious workforce shortage that is impacting nearly every sector of our government. But we also know the solution: more people and more workers, especially skilled ones,” said Dana Connors of the Maine State Chamber. “Newly-arrived people, including those seeking asylum, are a part of the answer to this problem and I applaud the Governor’s work to ensure that they have the resources needed to be on a path to employment. The result in the long run will be more help for Maine businesses and a stronger economy – what we need,” he concluded.
In 2015, the Legislature amended the Municipal General Assistance statute to clarify that certain people would be eligible for the program if they were “lawfully present in the United States” or “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief” was not defined in the statute. In April 2016, the prior administration adopted regulations that defined those terms extremely narrowly – in some cases, excluding people considered lawfully present under federal law, such as victims of human trafficking. The rule also required that those seeking asylum fully complete and submit an asylum application to federal authorities in order to qualify for General Assistance.
However, this runs counter to the Legislature’s intent to restore General Assistance eligibility for those pursuing a lawful process to seek asylum, a complex process that begins before filing a formal application. In response, the sponsor of this Legislative language, Republican Senator Amy Volk wrote in the “Portland Press Herald” op-ed at the time: “Unfortunately, the rules that are currently being proposed by the DDHHS contradict the intent of that bill, which became law earlier this year.”
The Maine Department of Health & Human Services is amending these definitions through an emergency rule change, allowing asylum seekers who provide proof that they are taking “reasonable good faith steps” to apply for immigration relief to qualify for General Assistance according to the press release from the Governor’s office.
“These changes square Maine’s rules with federal law and the intent of the Legislature, allowing municipalities to provide time-limited assistance to lawfully present people to help them in the path toward employment,” said Commissioner of the DHHS Jeanne Lambrew. (See above right photo of Lambrew).