As defenders of welfare benefits for asylum seekers in Maine get ready for a legal challenge against new rules, advocacy groups are divided about whether the effort can succeed.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has released new rules that only immigrants who meet a federal law’s definition of “lawfully present,” or who have applied for asylum, should be eligible for General Assistance. General Assistance is a state-funded welfare program.

Critics of the new rules say they conflict with a state law passed last year that called for asylum seekers to receive General Assistance for up to two years. They fear the change could leave some asylum seekers without access to money that pays for housing and food while they transition to life in America.

But even some who advocate for the welfare of immigrants are skeptical about whether a legal challenge has legs.

Lavinia Limón, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the state can decide whether it wants to give assistance to asylum seekers. Most states don’t.

“If you want to apply for asylum, that’s your prerogative, but don’t expect General Assistance,” she said. “There are rules of the game.”

The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition plans to sue, said Alain Nahimana, the group’s coordinator, who moved to the U.S. as an asylum seeker from Burundi in 2010.

The rules changes could negatively affect about 100 people in the Portland area alone, said Joby Thoyalil, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, which plans to join in the lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine agrees with the immigrants’ coalition that the state’s rules violate the state law passed last year.

“Barring some immigrants who are pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief from receiving assistance is contrary to the intent of lawmakers,” said a statement co-signed by the ACLU of Maine and the immigrants’ coalition.

The disagreement over General Assistance and asylum seekers is the latest chapter in a long struggle between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and state Democrats, Maine’s immigrant community and the people who advocate on the immigrants’ behalf.

LePage pushed to cut off the state’s General Assistance reimbursements to municipalities that provided the assistance to asylum-seeking immigrants. State Democrats then shepherded the new state law designed to protect the immigrants last year.

Portland and Lewiston, the two largest cities in the state, have large communities of people who emigrated from Africa and sought asylum in Maine.

A spokeswoman for the DHHS said the department interpreted the new state law accurately when it issued its new rules.


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