Earlier this year, the LePage administration proposed a rule change in the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) General Assistance program that would cut funding for certain categories of immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers who settle in Maine after fleeing from political turmoil and persecution in their home countries. For these immigrant families trying to get on their feet in their new communities, General Assistance is sometimes their only financial lifeline.
Immigrant groups, together with allies from advocacy organizations, faith leaders and local elected officials protested the rule change and gave impassioned public testimony to the DHHS urging them to reconsider the discriminatory proposal. In June, Maine’s Attorney General, Janet Mills announced the proposed rule change was unconstitutional. Mills argued that the rule violated not only the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions, but that the additional costs borne by towns to carry out the rule constituted an unfunded mandate from the state government.
Undeterred, the LePage administration immediately filed a new rule, this time only targeting immigrants whose legal status in the country is in question. The revised rule in essence would require town officials to become de facto immigration agents without funding or training, while also unfairly targeting immigrant families.
Again the Attorney General determined the proposal was unconstitutional, adding
that the new proposal violates Maine’s Administrative Procedures Act because the administration failed to even offer a public hearing for input. Despite the questionable legality of the rule, the LePage administration doubled-down on their attack and, in a recent two-page letter to municipalities, threatened to withhold all state funding for General Assistance from communities who choose to ignore the administration’s new policy.
Maine currently reimburses municipalities for 50 to 90 percent of the cost for General Assistance, which serves to help individuals and families pay for basic needs like food and shelter. For Portland, a total loss of state reimbursement would have a major impact. In the 2013 fiscal year, the city received over $7 million from the state for the General Assistance program which provided emergency assistance to 4,376 individuals and families.
Governor LePage’s ultimatum has placed Maine municipalities in a tenuous position – they cannot move forward with an illegal proposal for fear of lawsuits, but also can’t afford to lose access to state funding. Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Bangor city officials have said they will continue to provide aid despite the governor’s threat.
In light of this new development, the Maine Municipal Association wants a court ruling on the legality of the LePage administration’s new policy and has filed a joint lawsuit in Maine’s Superior Court with the cities of Portland and Westbrook. A judge will now decide whether or not the Department of Health and Human Services has overstepped its bounds by deciding to deny funding to communities that provide aid to immigrants, which includes immigrants who are awaiting word on asylum applications or in possession of expired visas. The hope is that the judge will place an injunction on the rule change, effectively halting it from taking effect, until the court makes a ruling.
MPA and allied organizations will continue to fight against this discriminatory rule and push back against Governor LePage and his politics of scapegoating. It has always been a priority for MPA to build the capacity of immigrant communities to organize for social change. Real social justice in Maine can only be achieved by involving everyone, including low- income families and communities of color fully in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. If you would like to get more involved in MPA’s work in organizing immigrant communities, contact MPA Immigration and Racial Justice Organizer Alain Nahimana at firstname.lastname@example.org.