People who come to Maine from other countries, fleeing detention, rape, torture and other forms of persecution, may soon face another hardship. Asylum seekers could be on the street unless legislators address their obligation to ensure that these new arrivals have what they need to start over here.

The state kicked off a major legal battle last year when it gave notice that it would no longer reimburse Maine municipalities for General Assistance payments to non-citizens. Portland, home to many of Maine’s asylum seekers, filed suit, along with Westbrook. The state countersued. And this week, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren affirmed the state’s right to withhold funding for aid to immigrants who are ineligible under federal law.

But Warren also noted in Tuesday’s ruling that there’s nothing in federal statute precluding Maine from passing a law to make asylum seekers eligible for General Assistance. And L.D. 369, a bill already moving through the Legislature, would do just that.

Though an earlier version of the measure eliminated General Assistance for asylum seekers, the proposal was amended to allow state GA funds to be used to help asylum seekers, while barring people here illegally from getting the benefit. Legislators are expected to vote on the amended bill next week, and they should pass it.

Asylum seekers arrive here with valid visas and are considered legal residents while they wait for the U.S. government to decide whether they can stay here legally. They aren’t allowed to work for at least six months after filing asylum applications, so they rely on General Assistance to help cover rent and other basic needs.

Many asylum seekers were professionals in their home countries — doctors, lawyers, engineers — and they want to join the workforce in their new homeland. (Even a supporter of the LePage administration’s approach to GA — Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald — has said as much about asylum seekers, telling the Press Herald last fall: “They come here to work.”)


What’s more, there’s no question that Maine could use the infusion of highly skilled workers.

Our rate of economic growth in 2014 was nearly dead last in the U.S., a new federal report found. A primary reason we’re lagging, according to the state economist, is that a lot of people are aging out of the workforce and not enough trained workers are coming along to take their place.

L.D. 369 faces a highly uncertain fate in Augusta, but there are other ways for lawmakers to secure emergency aid for asylum seekers, such as amending the state budget to fund General Assistance.

Elected officials should pursue all avenues, because Maine has everything to gain from making it possible for asylum seekers to get their feet on the ground here.

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