PORTLAND, Maine — The administration under Maine’s new Democratic governor has begun seeking public comment on plans to provide certain asylum-seekers with government benefits that her Republican predecessor fought to eliminate.
The Department of Health and Human Services is seeking public comment on regulations to provide state funding to legally admitted asylum-seekers with work documents. The regulations were filed Wednesday by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration on the last day of his term, when Gov. Janet Mills was sworn into office.
Mills spokesman Scott Ogden said the proposed change responds to a Jan. 2018 ruling by Maine’s top court. The ruling said Maine was wrong to deny food stamp benefits to asylum-seekers cleared to work but not yet employed.
Maine denied food stamps to such asylum-seekers following disagreements over state law, including the wording of the 2014-2015 budget. The state estimates restoring food stamps would cost Maine nearly $600,000 annually.
The proposal provides state-funded cash assistance to legally admitted immigrants seeking employment. That change would cost $393,000 annually.
LePage had fought to restrict governmental benefits to asylum-seekers who are allowed to work.
A spokesman for House Republicans, John Bott, said committee leaders will carefully review public comments and background concerning the proposed rules.
The proposal ensures people seeking asylum in Maine can have “basic needs” met while they’re seeking employment, said Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners. The advocacy group, which sued the state on behalf of asylum-seekers, estimated the 2018 court ruling could help as many as 150 other asylum-seekers access food stamps.
Merrill said the proposed regulations have been in the works since before Mills took office. She said her group’s already been telling clients about the change.
“Having access to food and shelter helps create stability as people get their feet on the ground and make a new life here,” she said.