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Maine Republicans target spending on asylum seekers ahead of budget debate, November elections

A new shelter for asylum seekers opened this week in Portland's Riverton neighborhood, with a capacity for 179 adults.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
A new shelter for asylum seekers opened in Nov. 2023 in Portland's Riverton neighborhood, with a capacity for 179 adults.

At a time when election-year politics are once again blocking immigration reform in Congress, Republican state lawmakers are accusing Gov. Janet Mills and Democrats of prioritizing asylum seekers over Maine residents.

But Republicans have yet to offer any specific plans to deal with the influx of asylum seekers arriving in Maine, aside from calling on the state to halt more generous welfare policies. And advocates for Maine's growing immigrant population argue that today's spending — in addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance — is an investment in future workers and young families in the nation's oldest state.

"The model of transitional housing has proven to be effective, given these results, and I think that it's a program absolutely worth investing into," said Charles Mugabe, director of migration services at Catholic Charities of Maine.

Republicans at the State House have been ratcheting up their rhetoric over immigration for more than a month. But last week — and then again on Tuesday — they launched their most forceful attacks yet on the tens of millions of dollars the state is spending to house and support asylum seekers.

"Taxpayers need to know how their money is being spent," House Minority leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said during a State House press conference last week "This is unacceptable."

Faulkingham and others are focusing much of their criticism on one fund — the Emergency Housing Relief Fund — that lawmakers provided with $55 million over the past two years for homeless shelters, rental assistance and subsidies for new affordable housing complexes in Bangor, Brunswick and South Portland.

"We found out a shocking number: $35 million, or 63% of that fund, is being used to house migrants, prioritizing them over Mainers," Faulkingham said. 

Much of that $55 million flowed to MaineHousing, the quasi-governmental agency that administers housing and energy assistance programs.

Spokesman Scott Thistle agreed that roughly $34 million of that $55 million has been spent to house asylum seekers, whether in expanded homeless shelters or in transitional housing. But Thistle noted that more than $1 billion has been paid out over the past three years for housing support, rental assistance and the creation of affordable housing.

"When you look at our combined expenditures in rental assistance and affordable housing creation, those figures that have gone to help asylum seekers is less than 3% of what we have appropriated over the 3-year period," Thistle said. "So it's a sliver of the total amount that goes to help folks with affordable housing."

But Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle drew a direct line between the state's welfare policies — which are more generous than some other states when it comes to housing assistance eligibility — and the surge of asylum seekers arriving here.

"Nobody is saying deny them," Stewart said. "We're just saying you don't need to spend $13 million on 85 families. That's the difference. You don't have to spend that kind of money to get results that actually move people's lives toward prosperity. That's a Democrat way of thinking and we reject it."

That $13 million is a reference to state spending on a Saco housing complex run by Catholic Charities of Maine, which has helped refugees become established in Maine for decades as part of the federal resettlement program and is now heavily involved with asylum seekers.

Designed as transitional housing, the converted Saco hotel can accommodate 85 families at any given time. But Mugabe said the facility has helped far more than that: 143 families encompassing 553 individuals have received shelter — and services — in Saco since July 2022.

Mugabe estimated the average length of stay at about three months. Roughly half of those families and individuals have moved onto permanent housing. And Mugabe added that those families also receive help applying for asylum and work permits as well as child care, English language lessons and job skills training.

"And I think that's such a great story to tell," Mugabe said. "Because it is not that individuals are coming and staying for a longer period of time. But rather it is individuals coming and preparing themselves for a life, for an independent life outside of this particular program, and for a successful integration into the community."

The increasingly heated rhetoric in Augusta comes at a time when Republicans in Congress are blocking changes that could help states deal with asylum seekers.

A bipartisan border and national security bill negotiated in the Senate would have allowed asylum seekers to legally work once they passed an initial screening. Now they must wait at least 180 days after applying for asylum — a process that often takes many months to complete by itself. The bill also would have provided billions of dollars to increase border security and, according to the White House, would have allowed the president to shut down the border to all cross-migration when certain thresholds were hit.

But Republicans scuttled the deal under pressure former President Donald Trump, who saw the bill as benefiting President Joe Biden politically heading into November.

Things turned feisty during last week's press conference in Augusta when reporters pointed out that congressional Republicans had killed the bill, with some GOP lawmakers taking issue with that characterization.

"Here's the deal: We need the feds' help to change the work permit requirement so that people can go to work, yes," said Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. "But in the meantime, we shouldn't be hanging a banner out front that says, 'Come to Maine, we're going to take care of you and everything is going to be fine.' That's a lie to those people because it can't even happen federally."

The Mills administration said in a statement that it has worked with communities, nonprofits and other partners to respond to the surge in asylum seekers amid the "continued federal inaction on immigration."

"The Mills administration continues to press the federal government to reform and streamline the asylum seeking process, including expediting work authorizations, and we will continue to work closely with municipalities to address the issue of homelessness for all people," said Tony Ronzio, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. "To that end, we have taken action to address emergency housing needs in Maine communities and to combat the shortage of housing that Maine people can afford — work that has resulted in thousands of people finding safe shelter and housing across the state and that has created the largest housing development pipeline in the history of MaineHousing."

Meanwhile, Thistle said that new housing infrastructure will be available for decades to come.

"We're really grateful for this Legislature and the bipartisan support they have shown on housing and homelessness," Thistle said. "It's been pretty strong over the last several couple of years. And we hope we can continue that productive relationship."

But with Congress once again gridlocked over the border — and Republicans in Augusta taking a harder line on asylum seekers — it's all but guaranteed that immigration will remain an issue in Maine and nationally through the November elections.