By Rebecca Scarborough
On November 8, Mainers will cast their votes to decide who our next governor will be. The current governor, Janet Mills, is the Democratic candidate. She is running against former governor and Republican candidate Paul LePage. LePage served as governor from 2011 to 2019. The two candidates have very different views about whether – and how – Maine should welcome asylum seekers. Among other policies at stake in the election is benefits for asylum seekers.
In 2013, when he was governor, LePage proposed a change to the rules for General Assistance eligibility to exclude “non-citizens,” which would keep asylum seekers from receiving General Assistance. Prior to this proposal, eligibility had only been determined by an applicant’s income, and not by the applicant’s citizenship status. LePage based his proposed change on a 1996 federal law barring states from providing assistance to undocumented immigrants unless the state had passed a new law allowing it to do so. (Mills, then serving as Maine’s attorney general, blocked this proposed change in 2013.)
LePage went further in 2014, issuing a letter to local officials stating that if they did not follow his guidelines for determining eligibility, Maine might withhold all GA reimbursement.
In an email to Amjambo Africa, Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said that in 2015, the Legislature under LePage amended a statute for determining GA eligibility, requiring people to be “lawfully present” or “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.” LePage chose to use a very narrow definition, Crete noted, “in some cases excluding people considered lawfully present under federal law, such as victims of human trafficking.”
In January 2018, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services had unfairly denied access to food stamps to asylum seekers who had not found work. After Mills took office, in 2019 DHHS expanded the scope of people who are eligible for General Assistance to include asylum seekers. When this change was made, Mills stated, “After giving it much thought, my Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, has reformulated the rule to comport with the intent of the law, encouraging individuals to pursue a lawful process of asylum in the courts or with the federal immigration service, and, at the same time, providing our towns, cities and property owners the ability to house families while they wait for their paperwork from the federal government.”
She called “common-sense” the requirements that individuals provide proof of eligibility, and that recipients must reapply every month and demonstrate need for the time-limited General Assistance benefits. “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,” she said. Mills and the Maine Legislature also have set aside $750,000 to help the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project assist asylum seekers with their asylum applications and work authorization.
According to Beth Stickney of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, before LePage was governor, he campaigned against an executive order signed by former Governor John Baldacci. This executive order blocked state employees from asking people’s immigration status unless they were legally required to. After LePage took office, he repealed that executive order.
Mills’ spokesperson Crete noted, “Fundamentally, Gov. Mills believes that comprehensive immigration reform at the Federal level is needed to expedite review of applications of asylum seekers and expedite work authorization so that people seeking asylum may work and Maine employers, who are badly in need of help, may draw on their talents.”
LePage does not appear to have changed his views on benefits for asylum seekers. He has stated publicly that he does not believe asylum seekers are in the United States legally, and has also said that he plans to continue to make asylum seekers ineligible for General Assistance. In contrast, Mills says that “[t]he status of people seeking asylum can vary depending on where they are in the immigration process,” but recognizes asylum seekers as “lawfully present” in the U.S. In fact, once someone applies for asylum, they receive documentation from the federal government saying they are here lawfully pending their asylum decision.
On LePage’s campaign website, one of his stated goals is to “[r]emove Maine’s status as a ‘Sanctuary State’, ensuring that Maine’s limited welfare resources are reserved for Maine’s most vulnerable populations.” Amjambo could find no specific legislation currently in place designating Maine as a “sanctuary state,” or providing unique protections to asylum seekers from government entities like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
LePage has stood against public benefits for all groups. Despite Maine voters supporting a 2017 referendum calling for Medicaid (MaineCare) expansion, he refused to implement that expansion. A paper published that same year by the Maine Center for Economic Policy estimated that Maine missed out on $1.9 billion in federal funds because LePage turned down Medicaid expansion. According to the Bangor Daily News, LePage also vetoed five bills that would have expanded “health coverage to an estimated 70,000 low-income Mainers.” In 2018, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy ordered LePage’s administration to acknowledge the referendum; with only 42 days left in office, LePage did not act.
Amjambo Africa offered LePage’s campaign the opportunity to outline his plans for asylum seekers if he were to win the election, and to directly answer whether he would pursue reducing benefits and General Assistance to asylum seekers. The campaign did not respond by press time.