As I toddle toward retirement from teaching secondary and adult students, I’ve started applying for my Maine state and Social Security retirement benefits. Paradoxically, while I plan to tap my own government-managed support programs, I’ve been conflicted watching the debate about General Assistance. While I’m anticipating a smooth transition, my students who are asylum seekers are fearing crises of survival.

Asylum seekers are not “illegal aliens” — a phrase that brings to mind people being dropped from an extraterrestrial craft, intent on mayhem. They are here legally; the State Department issued a legitimate visa for travel to the United States. Our governor’s divisive rhetoric has fanned the flames of a nativism that is shortsighted and hateful.

I understand the pressure to prioritize limited funds as we struggle to identify who is truly needy. I also understand the conflict with federal regulations, but think they no longer reflect life here.

They were adopted in 1996 before we began experiencing the current influx of asylum seekers, most from Africa. I hope that describing these latest newcomers as “illegal aliens” doesn’t reflect their being a different race or religion from the majority of Mainers. Sadly, I have my suspicions on that front.

My ambivalence about welfare benefits is rooted in my childhood. My parents’ world view was shaped by their own families’ varying immigrant experiences and struggles during the Great Depression. It was bootstraps all the way. For some, the bootstraps worked; for others, the straps broke.

It was a source of pride that my father’s mother, a widow raising three boys, maintained employment throughout the Great Depression. She owned her home and never had to rely on relief.

My father worked at a newsstand when he was 10 and managed to get a college diploma before enlisting in the Navy. With GI Bill support, he positioned our family to benefit from the postwar economic expansion.

By contrast, a sense of shame lingered decades later as my mother described the difficulty that her immigrant parents had in building a secure life. My grandfather, a day laborer, lost job after job.

My mother’s older siblings dropped out of school by eighth grade to work. They had to move out as my grandparents were forced to move to a smaller apartment. Survival tactics included taking Milwaukee County (Wisconsin) Aid food boxes.

The lesson drummed into me and my siblings: Get an education, be willing to accept any job and always put something aside for the difficult times.

Part of my duties at Portland Adult Education have been interviewing new students enrolling in courses. In addition to assessing reading and writing skills, we ask what brings them to Portland Adult Ed.

I’ve had U.S.-born students describe how they arrived in Maine and were instructed by town officials to go to Portland with its concentration of public services and support. I’ve met immigrants who discovered Portland through Facebook postings about the range of benefits. I’ve puzzled: Who’s more “deserving” — U.S.-born or immigrants?

My knee-jerk reaction to anyone who moved to Portland solely because of its benefits? That’s my money you’re talking about. However, as I have come to know my students, no matter how they got here, they’re the same: adults needing an education and job training.

The barriers seem insurmountable if you don’t have English language skills, a high school credential and a work permit that may take months, even years, to arrive from the federal government.

I think about my mother’s older siblings, income potential short-circuited because there was little help available at the time when the family most needed it. If all of them had at least graduated from high school, there could have been a different family trajectory that would have benefited future generations.

My immigrant students are eager to get jobs and launch their lives. They’re quite willing to work jobs that many U.S.-born adults seem reluctant to do: assembly line at fish or chicken processing plants, personal care assistants, office cleaning.

Many asylum seekers have professional credentials and expertise that our Maine economy needs. They are determined, persistent and have the potential to help us lay the foundation for growth over the next decades. Providing General Assistance at this early point in their lives here is a smart investment for all of us. We’re lucky they’re here.

State legislators should amend the law to include asylum applicants in the state of Maine’s General Assistance program. Let’s give them the bootstraps all people deserve.

Elizabeth Miller is a resident of Portland.

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