The LePage administration has scaled back proposals to cut social service benefits to immigrants and refugees as officials waded into the complexities of the programs and federal requirements.

The relatively small number of people affected, and the small amount of potential savings, show that the programs are not generous or expensive and are only helping the neediest newcomers, according to advocates for immigrants and the poor.

While the savings are not as large as expected, administration officials maintain the cuts are still needed to balance the budget and preserve social services for the majority of recipients.

Under the latest proposal, the cuts would affect fewer than 2,000 adults and children statewide and save about $3.5 million a year. Those affected represent less than five percent of Maine’s immigrant population and a fraction of the more than 330,000 Mainers receiving benefits such as cash assistance, food stamps or health care.

“To say we’re going to cut all these benefits to immigrants, it gives the impression they are all getting benefits, and it’s really a small percentage” who ask for the help, said Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland. “Here’s proof that today’s immigrants are doing exactly what our grandparents did. They are getting benefits at a far lower rate than the native Maine population or the citizen population is.”

Gov. Paul LePage singled out benefits for immigrants in his budget address as one of his administration’s first welfare reforms.

While Maine must always be a welcoming place for those who want to work hard and be self-reliant, he said in February, it should no longer be one of a handful of states that offers all welfare benefits “on day one.”

His initial budget proposed to save about $10 million a year by eliminating a variety of benefits for new immigrants and refugees who are not yet U.S. citizens. That proposal would have made all legal immigrants ineligible for MaineCare, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families during their first five years of residency.

Last week, administration officials reduced the scope of the proposed cuts, saying the state would maintain MaineCare benefits for more than 1,200 children and pregnant women who were included in the initial cuts. The federal government pays about two-thirds of the costs of those benefits and, because they are already covered, the federal Affordable Care Act prohibits the state from reducing coverage for that group, officials said.

All of the remaining cuts are focused on benefits that are not offered by the federal government and are paid solely by the state. They would eliminate TANF cash assistance for 138 parents and children, food stamps for 611 people and MaineCare for 1,550 people, according to the state. Many recipients get more than one of the benefits.

Those changes would affect legal, “green card” immigrants, most of whom were sponsored by families or employers when they arrived in the United States.

Illegal or undocumented immigrants already are denied such benefits under state and federal laws.

Refugees and those with political asylum, groups that have a different legal status because they have escaped war or violence, are supported by the federal government and mostly unaffected by the state’s budget proposals.

A small number of disabled or elder refugees — as many as 78 statewide — would lose state-funded benefits that become available after they have been here seven years. The state benefits replace Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which the federal government cuts off if a refugee hasn’t achieved citizenship in seven years.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee is expected to discuss the proposed cuts today.

Even though the savings will be smaller than hoped, the state still cannot afford to keep spending the money, said Barbara Van Burgel, director of social welfare programs for the Department of Health and Human Services.

“What it shows is (we’re using) much more of a scalpel than an axe,” she said. “All we’re trying to do is bring this into line with federal law.”

The proposals would bring Maine in line with minimum federal eligibility standards that came out of the 1996 welform reform law, she said. The federal law scaled back coverage for immigrants but allowed states to continue the benefits at their own expense.

Maine is one of just six states that have maintained all the benefit programs for immigrants at state expense. Twenty-three states have continued at least one of the benefits, while 27 offer none and are in line with minimum federal standards, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Under the current budget proposal, Maine would become one of two New England states — along with New Hampshire — that do not provide any of the benefits to new immigrants.

The DHHS has few options for reducing spending because the federal health reform law limits Maine’s ability to reduce eligibility for MaineCare, the most expensive piece of the department’s budget, Van Burgel said.

“There’s not a lot of good options,” she said. “You have to look at where is Maine out of line with the federal law. Where can we reduce our expenditures and live within our means?”

Advocates for immigrants and the poor say targeting newcomers is easy, and unfair.

“We see that as dividing people and we don’t want that. We see it as being one people, one nation,” said Al-Fadel Arbab of Portland, a refugee from Darfur who is now a U.S. citizen.

Arbab said he got a job and supported himself when he arrived in Maine in 2004. But not all immigrants and refugees can avoid asking for help, especially in a weak economy, he said.

“When somebody comes, you don’t have any English language,” Arbab said. “You have to start from the beginning. You know no culture. You don’t know how the work system works here.”

The proposals are making many immigrants nervous about their future, according to Arbab and other advocates.

“It’s not a ton of people (affected), but for those it’s helping, it is a crucial support,” said Robyn Merrill, policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners. “It’s still going to impact people in a severe way, and it will still affect children.”

Merrill and others said the cuts would shift the costs to other places, such as taxpayers in larger cities such as Portland and Lewiston. Cutting off health insurance also could lead to higher health care costs down the road, they said.

Stickney said it’s clear from the numbers that those immigrants who ask for help truly need it, and for the same reasons a whole lot of natives do.

“Anybody here who really knows refugees and immigrants personally knows the vast majority of them are working,” she said. “And to the extent they need public benefits, it’s often because they are working poor like many Maine residents.”

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