By Ulya Aligulova, Amjambo’s legislative reporter

Updates from Augusta

Even a child knows how valuable the forest is. The fresh, breathtaking smell of trees. Echoing birds flying above that dense magnitu“MIRC is extremely supportive of this legislation, which would reduce the time asylum seekers must wait to get a work permit. That would help people find employment quicker, so they wouldn’t have to rely on social services, or family and friends.” – Tobin Williamson, MIRC Advocacy Manager. de. A stable climate, a sustainable diverse life and a source of culture. Yet, forests and other ecosystems hang in the balance, threatened to become croplands, pasture, and plantations

The Second Regular Session of the 130th Maine Legislature opened on January 5 and will run until April 20. Some bills introduced this session are considered priority bills by individuals and organizations representing communities of color in Maine. These include legislation related to housing, tribal sovereignty rights, hunger, and the collection of data about racial equity, among other important bills. The democratic process allows for constituents to support the bills they care about. Often those bills with the greatest expressed public support are the ones that end up passing, although the governor does have a right to veto a bill.   

“A big priority of ours is LD 211,” said Tobin Williamson, Advocacy Manager of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), a nonprofit coalition with 85 member organizations that works to improve the legal, social, and economic conditions experienced by Maine’s immigrants. 

“LD 211 supports emergency shelter access,” Williamson said. “There are hundreds of asylum seekers in the Portland area that are being sheltered in overflow facilities and different hotels. Obviously, that’s not a long-term solution. MIRC and other community organizations and volunteers are scrambling to provide food and transportation for hundreds of people every day. One thing we’d like to see is state- or federal-level coordination.” LD 211, “An Act To Support Emergency Shelter Access for Persons Experiencing Homelessness,” was carried over from last session.  

Another priority housing bill for MIRC’s coalition members, according to Williamson, is LD 1673, “An Act To Create a Comprehensive Permit Process for the Construction of Affordable Housing.” “There was a public hearing on it earlier this month, and many people provided testimony.” Other bills concerning housing that were mentioned in last month’s report are LR 2299, LR 2339, LD 892, LD 1773, LD 1704, and LD 1871, which are all making their way through the legislative process. The sheer number of housing bills introduced by legislators this session is an indication of the very serious nature of the affordable housing crisis. 

Housing is on Martha Stein’s mind, as well. Stein is Executive Director of Hope Acts, a nonprofit organization (and MIRC member organization) that provides housing for asylum seekers at Hope House, as well as English classes, assistance with housing and work permits, and other resources for immigrants. 

“Currently there is a large number of people – not only immigrants, but also other Mainers – needing to be housed. One bill I am watching is LD 175, “An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue To Create and Enhance Regional Homeless Shelters.” Everyone can’t be housed in Portland. We need a statewide and regional approach to housing, and we need funding to get these emergency shelters up and running so people have a safe place to live. People are going to keep coming to Maine, and we need to be able to have a statewide infrastructure to support them,” said Stein. 

Another housing bill making its way through the legislative process is LD 473, “An Act To Create the Maine Rental Assistance and Voucher Guarantee Program.” Stein said, 

“Advocates strongly support LD 473, because it would provide not only vouchers and voucher guarantees for housing, but also critical housing navigation services, which are essential.”  

“One challenge we have working with asylum seekers is that they’re not eligible for any federally funded housing programs. So, at Hope House, when we’re working with a new client, we rely on General Assistance. But with rents going up, and the affordable housing shortage at a crisis stage, General Assistance on its own makes housing out of reach for the vast number of people we work with. We’re spending more time and resources trying to find housing for people than ever before. As a result, it’s taking longer for residents of Hope House, and people in shelters and hotels, to find their own apartments.”  

On the federal level, the Maine delegation recently sponsored legislation relating to asylum seekers that could help Maine address the housing problem. The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2022 aims to help relieve Maine’s worker shortage by reducing wait time for work permits for asylum seekers from 365 days to 30 days. The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by First District Rep. Chellie Pingree and was co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Senators Angus King and Susan Collins. If passed, the legislation would mean that asylum seekers would no longer be solely reliant on General Assistance, and could earn a salary, and therefore start to pay their own rent. 

“The current law comes from a misunderstanding… . Many people have no understanding of what the asylum process is. They don’t realize we actually prohibit people from working. Passage of this Act would make a huge difference here in Maine. So many are anxious to start their lives here,” Pingree said February 17 on the public television show “Maine Calling.”. 

“MIRC is extremely supportive of this legislation, which would reduce the time asylum seekers must wait to get a work permit. That would help people find employment quicker, so they wouldn’t have to rely on social services, or family and friends.” – Tobin Williamson, MIRC Advocacy Manager. 

Racial equity is clearly a priority for advocates. Last session, an important bill passed related to racial equity: LD 2, “An Act To Require the Inclusion of Racial Impact Statements in the Legislative Process,” sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross. This session, Talbot Ross sponsored a companion bill, which would require the Legislature to capture data relating to race: LD 1610, “An Act To Promote Equity in Policy Making by Enhancing the State’s Ability To Collect, Analyze and Apply Data.”  

“MIRC is one of the co-signers of [LD 1610]. The things we’re most excited about are the role that the State Commission will play, and the creation of a state demographics expert in the Economic Development Office. It would really help us better capture the necessary data and create a more updated racial equity focus for the state,” said Williamson. 

Tribal Sovereignty bills remain a huge priority for advocates this session. For the past 40 years, because of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, Maine’s tribes have not had the same rights as the federally recognized tribes in other states. More than 1,200 people submitted written testimonies for LD 1626, which was sponsored by Talbot Ross and titled An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act. 

“Like a lot of organizations and community partners, we’re watching LD 1626, which aims to restore the rights of the Wabanaki tribes. This is one of the highest profile bills in this session. However Gov. Mills is opposed to the bill as it’s currently written,” said Williamson.  

“The tribes in Maine have fewer rights than most other tribes across the country because of this one court settlement from the 1980s. This is a particular issue for communities of color because it addresses ways in which the white settler state has disadvantaged the tribes, and these bills are trying to fix those problems,” said Meagan Sway, Policy Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. 

Hunger is a huge issue in Maine, which ranks fifth in the nation for very low food security rates. According to Feeding America, 166,910 people in Maine are facing hunger – and of them, 44,520 are children. That amounts to one in six children, and one in eight residents. LD 174, An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Ending Hunger by 2030 Advisory Group, seeks to address the issue of food insecurity.  

“The bills that jump out to me first are those that would make an immediate difference, not only to immigrants and asylum seekers, but to all low-income and no income Mainers who’re struggling to get by… . No child can learn, no person can work or get on with their lives, if they’re food insecure and worry where their next meal is coming from. The fact that this [passage of this bill] is even possible is exciting, and it’s something everyone should be working towards,” said Stein of Hope Acts. 

Public hearings are a great way for members of the public to get involved and voice their support or opposition to certain legislation. Information about these hearings – as well as about how to submit testimony – can be found on the Maine Equal Justice social media sites. Assistance is available to those for whom English is not a first language, and testimony can be submitted in languages other than English.