AUGUSTA — A range of groups focused on human rights and social justice rallied at the State House on Friday to cry foul over a proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services to deny general assistance to immigrants newly arrived in Maine.

Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration proposed the new rules last month, but doesn’t consider them major enough to require approval by the Legislature.

“We feel that this exceeds the authority of the department to [make the changes] through rule,” said Merrill. “We have a lot of concerns, including social concerns with respect to our values with Maine people, economic concerns and legal concerns.”

Reforms to general assistance, a program administered by municipal governments to provide financial support to people experiencing financial crises, but which is partially funded with state dollars, has been a source of conflict between local governments, advocates for the poor and the LePage administration in recent years. In 2012, the Legislature and LePage enacted a supplemental budget bill that called for a recommendations to redesign the general assistance program in a way that would save the state $500,000 in fiscal year 2013.

A general assistance work group studied the issue and in January 2013 presented a report identifying dozens of changes that would generate savings of more than $800,000. Many of the changes were adopted by the Legislature.

According to Merrill, the issue of providing general assistance to recent immigrants was reviewed but rejected by a subcommittee of the work group.

Merrill said the change proposed recently by DHHS would be “devastating” for immigrant families, many of whom come to Maine seeking asylum and protection from violence in their homelands. She also said it would create problems for municipalities — chiefly Portland and Lewiston, where there are concentrations of immigrants — because they will be faced with dilemmas about how to support immigrants who are on the verge of homelessness but not eligible for general assistance.

“There would be hundreds of people unable to pay their rent,” said Merrill. “A lot of general assistance goes in the form of vouchers to landlords. People would be on the streets.”

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