Equal Access to Maine's Safety Net

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The Governor’s proposed budget, as well as a stand-alone bill, included proposals to bar access to Maine’s General Assistance (GA) program for some immigrants including people who fled persecution in their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.  The budget also proposed eliminating state-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Supplement (SNAP) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to lawfully present groups, including asylum seekers. These proposals ultimately failed, preserving aid for basic life necessities for hundreds of people, including children, seniors and people with disabilities.  While the Legislature rejected cuts to these three state-funded programs, the status of GA for asylum seekers and other immigrants remains unclear.

GA serves as a last resort for people who have nowhere else to turn for basic necessities such as food, housing, and medicine. Maine has never before considered someone’s immigration status to be part of the eligibility criteria for GA. It is a program that has always been based solely on financial need. The proposal to prohibit some immigrants from receiving this assistance would have resulted in hundreds of families seeking asylum becoming homeless. Since the federal government does not allow people seeking asylum to work for the first six months after they apply for asylum, many rely on GA as their only source of support during this time.

At the end of the budget negotiations, despite the efforts of many, legislators failed to pass a budget that preserved GA for asylum seekers and certain other groups of immigrants. After the budget passed, however, legislators revised a stand-alone bill, LD 369, An Act To Align Municipal General Assistance Programs with the Immigration Status Policies of the Department of Health and Human Services to grant asylum seekers and others access to GA for up to two years. This was a bipartisan agreement that passed in both the Senate and the House. This bill was destined to be vetoed by Governor LePage, but ultimately the Governor failed to do so within the time allowed by the State Constitution. As a result, LD 369 has become law – Public Law 324 – and asylum seekers and certain other immigrants will continue to be eligible for GA, but now with a time cap of 24 months.

Unfortunately, the GA story doesn’t end there, as the Governor is challenging the new law and a group of activists and legislators are working to get a statewide referendum on the June 2016 ballot to overturn it with a “People’s Veto.” This recent Bangor Daily News article lays out the many moving parts related to the fight to preserve GA for asylum seekers and other immigrants in Maine.

(August 2015)