Democratic lawmakers in the Maine Legislature have given early approval to a bill that would allow non-citizens to qualify for a range of welfare benefits, including food, cash and health benefit assistance.
The bill comes as the city of Portland is responding to the sudden arrival last week of more than 200 asylum seekers fleeing different countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The proposal was originally introduced to reverse an eight-year-old prohibition on welfare for noncitizens instituted by the LePage administration. It was thrust into the spotlight because Portland has asked the state for help in meeting the immediate needs of newly-arrived asylum seekers who are currently being housed in a makeshift shelter. The city is working to figure out a more long term plan.
The bill was stripped of its funding and would only allow asylum seekers to apply for benefits should money be available at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, or through the state and locally funded General Assistance program.
Nevertheless, debate over the measure was quickly engulfed by the contentious arguments that have colored the national discussion over immigration for the past several years.
"Maine is not a rich state. I wish we were," said Rep. Josanne Dolloff, a Republican from Rumford.
Dollof echoed other GOP lawmakers who say they worry that the asylum seekers are being given priority over Maine citizens.
"Somebody mentioned, a representative mentioned, that we have an obligation to these people. No, we have an obligation to our own people, our own needs, first," she says.
A handful of Republicans encouraged their colleagues to make a personal donation to the city of Portland, which has also been seeking private funds to help pay for food and services.
Rep. Scott Strom, a Republican from Pittsfield, was among those who encouraged private donations over taxpayer assistance.
"Because it's not that I don't want refugees and asylum seekers to come to the United States because I, personally, do," he says.
Other Republicans were less charitable in their views of the bill, or of asylum seekers, who some falsely labeled as "illegals."
And a handful took aim at the city of Portland, where some city leaders have made a point of welcoming immigrants, drawing criticism that the city is now asking state taxpayers for a bail-out.
Democrats, who control the House and the Senate, countered that the state is losing young people and that the asylum seekers are, like the immigrants before them, vital to the state's economy and future.
Rep. Michael Brennan, a Democrat from Portland and the city's former mayor, recalled how his grandmother immigrated from Ireland.
"How could I possibly turn my back on people who are coming to the state of Maine now asking for help? I would not be here today if, when my grandmother came over from Ireland, the people of Portland turned their back on her," Brennan says.
Under U.S. law, the people who arrived last week are here legally because they came through at a legal point of entry at the border and declared their intent to seek asylum.
Asylum seekers are prohibited from working for at least six months after filing asylum applications, forcing many to stay in homeless shelters and rely on public assistance.
But the more than 200 people who arrived on busses from San Antonio, Texas last week are also a unique case. City officials have said border agents did not conduct an interview that would have given them parole status, leading officials to believe that they may not qualify for General Assistance aid.
The bill approved by Democrats would allow General Assistance to be used. It faced additional votes before going to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who pledged last week to help.
But Wednesday, lawmakers adjourned without the Senate taking action on the bill. That means it gets carried over until the next session, which could be next year or perhaps later this year. The Legislature could also deal with the bill on so-called "veto day," which is when lawmakers return shortly after adjournment to vote on any gubernatorial vetoes.
Updated June 2, 2019 at 7:15 a.m. ET.