Legislature's vote could restore aid to Portland asylum seekers

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PORTLAND — The city got some encouraging financial news from Augusta heading into Wednesday’s City Council vote on a $221 million budget.

By a 81-63 vote, the Maine House approved an amendment to provide two years of General Assistance to immigrants seeking asylum. On June 19, the amendment to LD 369 by state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, passed the Senate 29-5.

“It gives enough time to get their working papers in order and get their feet under them, and it also covers in case someone lose a job. It gives a little cushion,” Volk said Monday.

The Senate vote indicates enough support to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage. House supporters of the provision must find 20 votes to ensure the two-thirds majority needed to withstand a veto.

Allowing asylum seekers two years of benefits would avert the possibility of an estimated 900 people in 500 families losing housing, food and other vouchers in Portland on July 1.

The fiscal year 2016 municipal budget is set to align with state Department of Health and Human Services policy against granting the vouchers to ineligible immigrants.

Former acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian allocated $350,000 in emergency aid to help with the transition, and Councilor Jill Duson said June 11 she is interested in allocation of $500,000 more to be spent through the middle of September.

Providing the vouchers to asylum seekers and other immigrants considered ineligible would cost the city about $3.9 million a year, according to estimates provided by Finance Director Brendan O’Connell.

If Volk’s amendment withstands a veto, the state DHHS would reimburse 50 to 90 percent of the expenses, or about $3.1 million, with the proportion increasing with city spending.

The prospect of providing reimbursements distressed DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who criticized Volk’s amendment in a June 19 press release after the Senate vote.

“I was appalled to find … the Maine Senate voted to give at least $6 million worth of welfare benefits to non-citizens just days after they voted to leave hundreds of severely disabled Mainers on waitlists for Medicaid services,” Mayhew said. “Mainers have spoken loud and clear that they believe public benefits should go to Maine citizens in need, not to non-qualified aliens, but a majority in the Senate has decided to listen to welfare industry lobbyists instead of Maine citizens.”

Volk on Monday agreed that Mainers should not be on waiting lists, but said Mayhew’s argument was incorrectly framed.

“We should be making (people on waiting lists) a priority, but the jobs the asylum seekers take can be caring for some of these people in the Portland area,” Volk said. “Those are hard jobs to fill and they want to fill them.”

Volk agreed with arguments made June 15 by Chris Hall, Portland Community Chamber of Commerce chief executive, and business counselor Tae Chong of Coastal Enterprises, about the skills and education levels of immigrants.

“They are very reminiscent of the immigrants of old who came here seeking a better way of life,” Volk said. “The statistics show they send more of their children to college than native Mainers do.”

DHHS reimbursements for General Assistance spending would avert the loss of benefits moving forward, but the city will not be getting reimbursements for prior voucher assistance that totals at least $2.1 million.

On June 10, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren ruled the DHHS had illegally ignored rule-making procedure when determining ineligible immigrants would not be getting General Assistance aid a year go. 

But he also ruled the department would be harmed by being forced to reimburse municipalities for vouchers in light of federal law cited by the department. The unreimbursed city aid will likely be covered by existing fund surpluses.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.