The recent introduction by the LePage administration of a rule change in DHHS’s General Assistance program that would cut funding for certain categories of immigrants was a serious blow to families in Maine struggling to build new lives in a new home, but it also provided an opportunity to immigrant groups to stand up as one, together with allies from advocacy organizations, faith leaders and other stakeholders, and fight this rule change together. The proposal to bring discrimination in the state program and leave more than 400 families without any assistance was met with a new kind of organized activism from Maine immigrants.
Opposition to the rule change was coordinated by MPA immigrants’ rights & racial justice organizer Alain Nahimana, who is also the coordinator of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Because of the organizing effort he helped to lead, the public hearing at DHHS on January 10, 2014 saw more than 200 people attend and around 50 speakers opposing the rule. No one spoke in favor of the change. This campaign was also broadly covered by the media.
Describing the hearing, one of the organizers wrote: “Thank you all for a powerful and unprecedented rule hearing today! I have never seen a DHHS hearing like the one I witnessed today. Dozens of people testified and it was strong, heartfelt testimony. DHHS staff commented after that the people who testified today put a human face on this proposal. That is what we set out to do and we did it.”
Additionally, 2,600 signatures were collected on a petition to oppose the rule change. For many in immigrant communities, this was a clear demonstration of the willingness of a broad swathe of Maine people to stand with them in advocating for their rights and to be part of a larger movement for social change.
A press conference was also organized at Portland City Hall with Mayor Brennan and speakers from the Portland and Lewiston immigrant communities as well as faith leaders and members of the business community, and was well covered by the media. It saw the attendance of dozens of concerned Mainers from a wide range of backgrounds.
If the GA rule goes forward, MPA and its allies are determined to challenge this discriminatory action in court. The implementation of the rule would be a violation state and federal laws making discrimination based on immigration status illegal.
Some of this increased coordination and public advocacy from Maine immigrant groups may be traced back to last fall when a training on “organizing for power” was held for immigrant community leaders by the Maine Peoples’ Alliance. 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.