Maine's city lawmakers stand together in support of immigrant aid

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AUGUSTA — A group of lawmakers from Maine’s largest cities banded together in opposition to a new two-year state budget that makes it easier for the state to deny financial help to asylum-seeking immigrants.

During a series of floor speeches late Tuesday night lawmakers from Bangor, Portland and Lewiston decried a rejection to changes in the state budget that would have allowed the state to reimburse city General Assistance programs when they provide funds for food, shelter and medicine to immigrants that have yet been given federal permission to seek work.

“This budget does not take the necessary steps to ensure that Maine’s asylees are provided a roof over their heads and food to sustain them until they are able to obtain a work permit, get a job and become the successful and productive members of our communities that they so desire to be,” state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said.

Golden, a Marine Corps veteran who served combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, said voting for the budget bill without the change “would be a betrayal of my principles.”

“Voting to hurt men, women and children here in Maine seeking a new life free of persecution is unacceptable to me,” Golden said. “Voting to deny a helping hand to people who are far less fortunate than I am, who came here hoping to find peace and freedom, many seeking asylum from violence and praying for the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, flies in the face of everything that I stand for.”

“As a Marine I took great pride in standing up for the people that are not in a position to stand up for themselves. How can I do anything less as a legislator without betraying the values the Marines instilled in me?” Golden asked.

Golden said the budget as it was written provided an income tax break of $1,500 a year for about 7,000 people in Maine who earn $370,000 a year or more, but the portion of the state’s budget that helps cities provide support to immigrants through city-run General Assistance programs amounted to less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the state’s $6.7 billion budget.

State Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, who also voted against the budget Tuesday night, said efforts to cut the immigrant group off and risk making as many as 1,000 people homeless was too unjust a proposal to support.

“For us to have an income tax cut that benefits people in the top 1 percent when we are also failing to fix this asylum-seeker issue” made the budget impossible for him to support, Goode said. “And it’s not like it’s difficult for us policy-wise to fix the asylum-seeker issue. We are just literally leaving people out on the streets.”

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the House chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, also voted against the budget, as did state Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, another member of the committee.

They were joined by state Reps. Scott Hamann, Dick Farnsworth, Diane Russell, Peter Stuckey, Matt Moonen, Denise Harlow and Mark Dion, all Portland Democrats. Also voting no were state Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland independent, and state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook.

In the Senate, where the amendment was stripped from the bill, state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, said she came to know many asylum-seeking immigrants through a Portland church she and her family have attended for 10 years.

“One of the things that attracted us to that church was the diversity that we found there,” Volk said, urging her colleagues to accept the amendment while reminding them of Maine’s ever-aging population and dwindling workforce numbers.

Volk’s amendment would have allowed asylum-seeking immigrants to receive General Assistance for up to 24 months, usually enough time for the federal government to decide their status and issue them work permits.

She said members of her congregation from Burundi, Congo and Rwanda seeking asylum in the U.S. taught her many things.

“We learned about their stories and what brought them here, and the thing that has mainly impressed me is how driven they are to succeed and how hard they worked to learn our language, learn our customs and adapt to our weather conditions even,” Volk said. “I cannot imagine going from living in Africa to living in Maine where we have a six-, seven-month winter, and yet they were happy to be here and felt so blessed to be safe.”

Volk said she’s watched as these families have grown and established lives in Maine. “They have all gone to work, as soon as they are able to,” Volk said. “And they’ve been successful, they’ve graduated from high school, and if they had the ability to afford it they’ve gone on to school.”

She said that over the next two decades the ratio of senior citizens to working-aged adults, those 25 to 64 years old, was going to increase by 23 percent.

“It just strikes me that considering the workforce issues that we face in this state, if you think we have a problem now, 20 years from now we will have an even bigger problem,” Volk said. “We need to figure out how we are going to attract people to our state? How are we going to grow our workforce?”

She said Maine needs to create incentives to attract immigrants, not come up with ways to turn them away. “It’s an investment in our future,” Volk said, citing proof found in a variety of studies as well as the support of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce in helping new immigrants succeed here.

Republicans who voted against the measure said state funds used to support asylum-seeking immigrants would have to come from funds spent on elderly or disabled Mainers who are now on wait lists for services with the Department of Health and Human Services.