Asylum-seeking immigrants will again become eligible for assistance next month after a conservative activist announced Tuesday that he is dropping an effort to repeal a new law that provides housing and food for up to two years.

Gov. Paul LePage had stopped using state tax dollars to fund General Assistance benefits for asylum-seekers in July 2014, but missed a deadline and failed to veto a bill passed this year by the Legislature that requires the state to continue providing the emergency aid.

Conservative activists and lawmakers considered launching an immediate people’s veto to prevent the law from taking effect, but Stavros Mendros, a former Republican lawmaker from Lewiston, said he is dropping the effort to collect thousands of signatures statewide and force a referendum to overturn the law. Instead, Mendros said, he will devote his efforts toward a broader statewide referendum on welfare reforms being planned by the Maine Republican Party.

“The better way to do it is as part of an overall package,” Mendros said.

The move clears the way for Portland to continue providing emergency assistance to hundreds of immigrants, with most of the costs being borne by the state.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said in an Aug. 25 letter to Portland that the new law will take effect Oct. 15 and be retroactive to July 1. The letter notes that an “eligible person” now includes “a person who is lawfully present in the United States or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.”

“The department will be promulgating rules and will release guidance to assist municipalities in complying with this eligibility determination,” wrote Ian Million, the state’s General Assistance program manager.

AN EXPECTATION OF REIMBURSEMENT

Portland officials are awaiting guidance from the state about who is eligible for the program. But City Manager Jon Jennings said in an email to councilors last week that the city will continue to fully fund benefits for those currently receiving assistance through a new program created by the council as part of its $225 million budget.

“We have looked at the months of July and August for the Community Support Program and we are tracking ahead of budget,” Jennings said. “We are recommending that we continue to fund all benefits under the Community Support Program for September and October with the expectation we will be reimbursed from the state.”

The city’s fund was expected to fall $1.5 million short of the need, so the council decided to make housing assistance a priority, hoping the community – through partnerships and fundraising – could make-up the difference. But now the city will provide full benefits in line with the state GA program, said Jessica Grondin, the City Hall communications director.

Twenty-three households were denied food assistance this month and referred to Wayside Food Program, Grondin said. On Tuesday afternoon, the Preble Street social services center held an emergency food pantry for asylum seekers. Going forward, those families will once again be eligible to receive benefits through the city, she said.

State DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said the new rules will be published for public comment in the coming weeks. He could not provide a precise cost to the state.

“The department is currently projecting costs, but at the end of the day, Maine taxpayers, against their wishes, will be paying millions of dollars for welfare for non-citizens as a result of the Legislature’s actions this year,” Sorensen wrote in an email.

He was referring to legislation that passed last session to make asylum-seeking immigrants eligible for GA, after LePage had won re-election by focusing heavily on promises to push for welfare reforms, including denying assistance to non-citizens. LePage’s daughter also used the issue as leverage against Republicans who opposed the governor’s budget proposal and supported a compromise budget, which she said included “welfare funding for illegal immigrants.”

OPPONENTS ARE NOT GIVING UP

General Assistance is a safety net program that provides vouchers for housing, food, utilities, clothing and medicine. Funding is shared between the state and local governments.

Many asylum-seekers enter the country legally on valid visas and seek to stay here permanently for a variety of reasons, including the fear of violence and political persecution in their home countries. Asylum seekers are prohibited under federal law from receiving such federal, state or local assistance unless a state legislature has passed a law explicitly making them eligible.

Until recently, Maine’s Legislature hadn’t passed such a law.

LePage had tried last year to eliminate welfare benefits for asylum-seeking immigrants by not reimbursing communities such as Portland that provided it. Portland continued the aid at its own expense while fighting the administration to restore funding.

After the Superior Court effectively upheld his administration’s decision to withhold reimbursements to communities that provided assistance, LePage failed to act in time to veto a law passed by the Legislature that explicitly made asylum-seeking immigrants eligible for the program.

Mendros had taken out petition papers to overturn the law, but will now include the change as part of a broader 2016 referendum that will target welfare and income tax reform, rather than compete with the Republican Party for funding.

“I didn’t see the resources there” for a separate people’s veto, he said.

Opponents are not giving up on cutting off the aid.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said details of the statewide referendum for 2016 are expected to be released “within a week.”

When it appeared as though the state would be successful in eliminating nearly 1,000 immigrants from the state’s emergency benefits program, the Portland City Council created a $2.6 million fund to continue providing aid to immigrants who already were receiving benefits. That funding was projected to fall $1.5 million short of the need.

Now that the city expects to be reimbursed by the state, Grondin, the city spokeswoman, said most of that funding will be moved into the city’s surplus account to help replenish the more than $5 million that was expected to be needed to balance last year’s budget, which was overspent because the state withheld GA funds under the old rules.

 

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