Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday that the state is relaxing eligibility rules for General Assistance and will allow qualified asylum seekers to apply. The decision comes as more than 350 migrants have arrived in Portland since early June from the southern U.S. border. Local officials say the new rule provides needed funding as many of the newly arrived families relocate to other towns around the state.
The decision from Gov. Mills reverses a three-year-old policy put in place by the LePage administration that narrowed the definition of who was eligible for General Assistance funds. That money is used by local municipalities to pay for services like housing and medicine, with the state reimbursing 70 percent of the cost.
Under the new rules, families seeking asylum will be eligible for funds if they show that they are taking "reasonable good faith steps" to apply for immigration relief. Mills says that will help to provide assistance to asylum seekers, including the more than 350 migrants who have arrived in Portland since early June from the Texas border with Mexico.
"It prompts them and encourages those families to take every reasonable step, every lawful step, to become eligible for asylum status under federal law," says Portland City Councilor Pious Ali.
Ali describes the announcement from Mills as a "relief" for his city, which has faced questions about how to provide long-term support for the newly arrived families. He says that the additional state assistance will help individuals get on their feet in the months ahead.
"So it's a win-win situation in my opinion,” he says. “We're going to make sure that we give them the support they need, to transition into becoming productive members of society."
The policy change also comes as Portland faces a quickly approaching August 15th deadline. That is when the asylum seekers need to be out of the city's emergency shelter at the Portland Expo building. The city has pre-existing contractual obligations with the Maine Red Claws basketball team, which plays at the center.
With limited affordable options within the city, organizations and officials are also looking to other, smaller towns nearby for longer-term housing.
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings calls the rule change a "game-changer" for those surrounding communities, as he says the additional assistance will help them provide upfront resources, like food and rent.
"A city, or a town, regardless of where they are, can attract these new workers into their community,” he says. “Initially provide the support at 30 percent. But recognizing, the cost-benefit will be that these families are going to be contributing members of their community.”
Some of the newly arrived families have already moved to Brunswick, where a developer has offered the use of two furnished houses, rent-free, for at least three months. Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge says the rule change will allow the town to provide more resources to asylum seekers directly, instead of only relying on donations.
"It changes the dynamic from one in which we were looking to coordinate donated services, to one in which we may now be providing services directly," Eldridge says.
Eldridge adds that the policy change could also open up more rental housing options within the city that might not have been possible without additional state resources.
Mills says expanding the eligibility requirements will not require any new appropriations, and she says the state already has enough money in its General Assistance budget to cover the newly eligible residents. Mills is also asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide funds to organizations and towns in the state who have taken in asylum seekers.
Originally published 1:42 p.m. July 18, 2019.