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Attorney General: Towns Advised to 'Ignore' DHHS Rule Denying Assistance to 'Illegal' Immigrants

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills

Gov. Paul LePage is standing by a new enforcement rule announced yesterday by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to eliminate General Assistance for "illegal, undocumented immigrants." Cities and towns that choose to continue to provide it would have to use their own resources. Maine's Attorney General Janet Mills says the administration doesn't have the statutory authority to enforce the rule. And she and others are advising cities and towns to just ignore it.

The rule change was announced in a DHHS press release Wednesday afternoon less than a month after Maine's attorney general advised the administration that a similar proposal to deny benefits to certain immigrants violates the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions. At a business trade show in Lewiston Thursday morning, Gov. LePage defended the move.

"What is it that people don't understand about 'illegal?'" LePage says. "The attorney general disagrees with everything we've put out, refusing to represent us, so what's new? She hasn't done a thing for two years."

LePage, of course, is a Republican, and Attorney General Janet Mills a Democrat. But Mills and others say what's important is that the administration did not follow the required process for implementing a new rule: providing public notice and public input and getting approval from the Legislature or the attorney general. Mills says DHHS can't implement one by press release.

"That does not have the force of law. It just doesn't. And the towns would be well advised to ignore it," she says.

Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, has similar advice for those that administer General Assistance.

"My advice to towns and cities would be to ignore this rule," he says. "It has no legal authority behind it. No court would enforce a rule like this because it hasn't been signed off by the attorney general."

In its press release, DHHS says enforcement will save the state more than a million dollars and affect about a thousand residents who are in Maine illegally. Some suggest the figures are probably much lower. But everyone agrees that the places most affected are Portland and Lewiston, with the largest immigrant and refugee populations. The state says it will continue to fund 50 or 90 percent of a municipality's costs for individuals eligible for General Assistance, according to an existing funding formula. But Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association, says the new rule puts cities and towns in a bind.

"If you do deviate from current law and current ordinances you're going to be subject to challenge, legitimate challenges from those applicants and the people who help those applicants get the benefits they feel they deserve," Herman says.

But, says Herman, if cities and towns don't go along with the new rule, DHHS will likely block or dock their reimbursement and the municipality will have to challenge DHHS. His own personal advice is to follow current law. Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald says he'll be discussing the issue with other city officials to determine the next step. In the meantime, he says he agrees with the governor, that providing assistance to illegal, undocumented immigrants comes with a cost.

"I don't mind helping people out," MacDonald says. "But we're doing it at the cost of helping our own people. I mean we can't afford this. I mean we just laid all kinds of people off. We've cut services."

MacDonald estimates that in Lewiston about 200 immigrants would be affected by enforcement of the new rule. Attorney General Mills and others say calling immigrants "illegal" and denying them emergency assistance just because they don't have the proper paperwork with them is inhumane.

"You are talking about people who are fleeing disasters, fleeing domestic violence," she says. "They don't carry their purses and their briefcases with them. And if you're going to do this in a constitutional fashion you would have to ask every single applicant the same question."

And that, says Mills, will turn city clerks into the equivalent of immigration agents who will all be required to understand a complex set of immigration laws and ask all Mainers for the same thing: "Your papers, please."