AUGUSTA — Advocates for Maine’s immigrant community are asking lawmakers to restore asylum seekers’ access to food stamps and MaineCare benefits as part of a broader push to reverse some LePage-era welfare reforms.

In 2011, former Gov. Paul LePage and a Republican-led Legislature passed a suite of welfare reforms that, among other things, excluded many asylum seekers from the state-administered Medicaid program, food stamps and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

At the time, Maine was still recovering from the Great Recession and cities such as Portland were seeing an influx of immigrants seeking refuge from war or persecution in central African countries. LePage, meanwhile, was committed to carrying out his promised welfare reforms from an election that also gave Republicans control of the Legislature for the first time in decades.

Eight years later, Maine is still a destination for asylum seekers and that continues to strain social services in the state’s largest city.

But on Friday, advocates for immigrants urged lawmakers to end policies they contend create additional hardships – and impediments – for people struggling to rebuild their lives while navigating a confusing and overburdened federal immigration system.

Jane Makela, a retired attorney from Falmouth who offers pro bono legal assistance to immigrants, said the complexity of the immigration system means that asylum seekers were “hit particularly hard by the denial of benefits this bill would restore.”

“No one wants to depend on charity or on public assistance,” said Makela, speaking on behalf of the Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network. “It has been my experience, without exception, that asylum seekers want to work as soon as they can. And they will work at whatever they can get – often those (jobs) that no one else will take.”

Members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard more than five hours of testimony on a package of bills aiming to change Maine’s welfare and General Assistance laws.

The bill supported by Makela and more than a dozen others, L.D. 1317, would allow more legal non-citizens to qualify for health coverage through MaineCare as well as assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (formerly known as “food stamps”) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs.

Under the bill, someone would be eligible if they were considered “lawfully present in the United States with the knowledge and permission of the United States Department of Homeland Security” or who were “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.”

Leopold Ndayisabye, who said he fled Rwanda in 2011 because of persecution, torture and the fear of assassination, pointed out that that asylum seekers are not even eligible to work legally until 150 days after they file an asylum application. And filing that application “is a long and complicated process” even for those familiar with the process who also have strong English reading and writing skills.

Now a U.S. citizen, Ndayisabye said not providing temporary assistance not only threatens the welfare of asylum seekers but also is “diminishing the rights of Mainers to protect other human beings.”

“I am currently a business owner, a homeowner and am ready to hire three full-time staff” members, Ndayisabye said. “I pay my mortgage, taxes, insurance, utilities and therefore contribute actively to the social and economic life of the state of Maine. This happened thanks to the short-term help from General Assistance and DHHS. My family and I, we have been sheltered and fed upon arriving in Maine.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said Maine’s workforce and demographic challenges mean the state needs to embrace and invest in people “whether or not they were born here or came here from far away.”

It was unclear how much it will cost the state to restore non-citizens’ access to the assistance programs because a fiscal note has not yet been prepared for the bill. In 2011, the LePage administration predicted their immigrant-related welfare reforms would save the state $20 million over two years, although opponents of the changes questioned those figures at the time.

Gattine, who co-chairs the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said “it’s probably a relatively small number of people” who would qualify for the benefits. The Appropriations Committee will make funding decisions based on the next round of revenue projections expected next month.

“Two years ago we didn’t have a lot of money on the table to fund bills like this and then last year we were able to,” Gattine said. “It’s hard to know and understand what kind of money we are going to have, but I think this should be in the mix.”

Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, said many of the sexual assault survivors who come through her Lewiston center need not only support but also medical treatment for injuries sustained during horrific assaults in their native countries. But access to that care is limited for many because of the MaineCare eligibility restrictions.

“It’s unfair to . . . only address the (emotional) trauma but also not have access to medical care,” Hussein said. “These are the people that we deal with every day. They have come here . . . seeking for justice, seeking for safety and trying to have a better life for their children.”

No one testified against the bill during Friday’s hearing.

Another bill considered Friday, L.D. 1403, would establish “presumptive eligibility” for General Assistance for individuals staying at emergency homeless shelters and re-establish a 90 percent state reimbursement rate for larger cities such as Portland and Bangor.

Bill sponsor Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, said the state had long reimbursed cities for 90 percent of General Assistance costs in recognition that they served citizens from across the region. But Brennan, a former Portland mayor, said the LePage administration decided to end the decades-old practice after what he called a “questionable audit” by DHHS.

At the time, the LePage administration was trying to slash General Assistance payments to Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and a handful of other cities to funnel that money into other DHHS programs. But the administration was also battling Portland and other cities over whether non-citizens should qualify for General Assistance.

“Implicitly, the state has relied on these communities to offer a broad range of shelter and food services at great savings to the state but at disproportionate cost to the municipalities,” Brennan said in his written testimony to the committee. “This is unfair. That is why I am asking you to support this bill and restore the General Assistance program to its previous levels of eligibility and reimbursement.”

The committee will hold work sessions on the bills on a future date.

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