DHHS Issues Final General Assistance Rule

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DHHS Issues Final General Assistance Rule, Leaving Out Some Who Need Help

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued their final rule to implement Public Law 324 – the 2015 state law that preserved eligibility for General Assistance (GA) for lawfully present immigrants and those taking steps to apply for immigration relief.  Maine Equal Justice has serious concerns with certain parts of the rule.  The rule leaves people out whom the state law was intended to protect.  It incorrectly defines who is “lawfully present” and who is “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief”.  As a result, it denies GA eligibility to certain asylum seekers and others who are taking steps to lawfully apply for immigration relief.

What the Final Rule Fixed:

Last fall, DHHS’s proposed rule included several violations of Public Law 324.  Several of those proposals were removed from the final rule in response to public comment from Maine Equal Justice and others:

  1. The proposed rule applied a new 24-month cap limiting the amount of time some immigrants can receive GA.  This was required by the new law, but DHHS extended the cap to other groups, including refugees, people granted asylum, and other immigrants who are qualified under federal law and who are not subject to the state law’s new time limit.  DHHS corrected this in the final rule.
  2. The proposed rule applied the 24-month time limit to months prior to the effective date of Public Law 324. DHHS fixed that so the time limit now only applies to months after the effective date of July 1, 2015.

What the Final Rule Did Not Fix:

  1. DHHS’s definitions of “lawfully present” and “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief” are incomplete and are contrary to the intent of the legislature.  The Department excludes asylum seekers who are taking lawful steps to apply for asylum as well as any other immigrants who are lawfully preparing applications for immigration relief under federal law.
  2. The law undermines municipal authority under existing GA law to define the scope of eligibility in compliance with state law.  Portland, for example, will not be able to receive GA reimbursement from the state for certain asylum seekers who are eligible under the Portland ordinance, even though the city’s ordinance complies with the state law.

Impact on People

The clear intent of the Legislature in 2015 was to restore access to GA to people throughout the asylum-seeking process, but with a new time limit of 24 months of assistance.  The result of DHHS’s final rule is that asylum seekers who are preparing their applications for asylum, and who have not yet submitted them, will not be eligible for GA if their visa expires.  This is of concern for several reasons:

  1. The federal government allows asylum applicants one year to prepare and submit an asylum application.  Most asylum seekers arrive to the U.S. with a short-term visa that is valid for six months.  The time needed to find initial stability in this new land (usually after fleeing dangerous circumstances), learn about the asylum process, secure help from an attorney and then complete the months-long application process often surpasses the six month period in which visas remain valid.
  2. Asylum applicants who work with an asylum attorney have a much greater chance of having a successful application.
  3. Before asylum seekers submit their applications – and then wait an additional six months to obtain work authorization from the federal government – they are not allowed to work and earn a living.  GA has served as a vital bridge toward independence for individuals and families to survive during this period.

This means that this rule creates a gap in this bridge between the time their visa expires and the time they are able to properly complete their asylum applications.  GA pays primarily for housing; those families in this situation will no longer be able to pay the rent.  We worry that the natural effect will be for people to rush their applications and to not wait until an asylum attorney is available.  This will seriously jeopardize the likelihood of being granted asylum even though they have a case with merit.

The good news is that the City of Portland has decided to continue to help people who fall within this gap – at least for the time being.  City officials included funds within the budget that recently passed for this purpose.  However, the City is not bound to do this and could change this policy at any time.  What is more, other municipalities, such as Lewiston, are denying GA to people in this situation.

What Now?

Maine Equal Justice, along with immigrant communities, other advocates, and allies will work to encourage other municipalities to follow Portland’s lead and identify municipal funds to help asylum seekers during this gap in assistance.  This would mean a tremendous difference for those a municipality could help.

In the meantime we are taking steps to challenge the state rule.  MEJP will continue to work with municipalities to uphold the intent of Public Law 324 – to provide assistance to people who are taking steps to pursue a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.

If you have any questions or want to get involved in working on this with us, contact Joby Thoyalil at jthoyalil@mejp.org or 207-626-7058 ext. 207.