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Rule Change Would Again Attempt to Limit General Assistance Benefits for Asylum Seekers

AUGUSTA, Maine — The latest attempt by the LePage administration to exclude certain immigrants from receiving benefits under local general assistance programs came under fire at a public hearing in Augusta today.

Opponents object to a proposed redefinition of what it means to be "lawfully present" in the state.

Immigrants granted asylum by the Convention Against Torture, those seeking asylum before an immigration judge and even mothers and their children granted permanent residency status under the Violence Against Women Act are just some of the groups that have been historically eligible for general assistance benefits. But critics say they would be forced to find other means of support under the rule change proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rosaline Kabwika-Mukoma says she and her family fled political persecution in Capetown, South Africa, for a safer home in Auburn. She says the rule seems at odds with the place she has come to love.

"To me what I heard about America, they look after the people, they're good with the children and most of all, safety, and that attracted me to Maine," Kabwika-Mukoma says.

After obtaining an immigration visa and arriving in Maine with little more than the clothes on their backs, she said she and her family would not have been able to transition into the Auburn community without the benefit of general assistance funds that are provided by state and local tax revenues.

"Without GA I cannot imagine myself being out in the snow, sitting God knows where and then having to explain to our children, 'We took you out of South Africa,'" Kabwika-Mukoma says. "We had a good life. I was earning a salary of $3,700. I'm a technologist. My husband is an engineer — we had a good life."

Instead of being a burden to Maine taxpayers, she says she and her family want to give back to the state to make it a better place for everyone to live. She and others don't understand why DHHS wants to exclude a small group of immigrants from state benefits.

In a written statement, DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said that by giving out these benefits, the state has been in violation of federal law since 1996. And she said a federal court sided with the LePage administration's position earlier this year.

Since then Maine lawmakers have attempted to resolve the federal concerns with new legislation. The DHHS rule is an outgrowth of that.

But Omai Amarasingham of the Maine Chapter of the American Civil Liberties takes issue with the department's interpretation what it means to be lawfully present in Maine.

"We are concerned that the proposed rule misinterprets Public Law Chapter 324," she says. "The clear intent of the Legislature in enacting PL 324 was to expand eligibility for general assistance. On balance the department's proposed new eligibility restrictions would narrow access to GA which violates both the letter and the spirit of the law."

The DHHS panel has set a Dec. 29 deadline for receiving written comments on the proposed rule change, which will have to be approved by the Maine attorney general's office.