LEWISTON — About 50 immigrant families seeking asylum in Maine will lose state-funded food stamp and Temporary Assistance to Needy Family benefits in December, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

About $260,000 in temporary funding for the benefits, which help 128 individuals statewide, including children, has been depleted, DHHS spokesman John Martins said.

The state sent notifications to the families Tuesday to let them know there would be no funds available in December.

In Lewiston, about nine families with a total of 30 people will be affected, said Sue Charron, the city’s director of social services. 

The funds were part of a supplemental budget passed by the Legislature earlier this year over a veto by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The money was meant, in part, to ease the burden on local municipalities that would otherwise have to help support asylum-seeking immigrants with work permits but no jobs through state and locally funded General Assistance programs. 

The bulk of Maine’s asylum-seeking immigrants reside in Lewiston and Portland; both cities have faced mounting General Assistance costs in recent years.

Charron said Tuesday that those losing state support would become eligible for General Assistance from the city, and the number of those eligible would likely grow over time as more unemployed asylum-seekers gained permission from the federal government to work.

Unaffected are asylum-seekers who have not yet been granted legal permission to work and others who are deemed eligible under hardship conditions, including those who are elderly or disabled.

Charron said some of the families in question may have found work, so she couldn’t say exactly how many would become eligible for General Assistance beginning in December.

A rule change by the LePage administration to stop providing General Assistance to some immigrants awaiting work permits does not affect asylum-seekers who have received work permits.

Complicating the problem for cities and those seeking asylum are long federal waiting periods and processing times. Those seeking asylum can wait years for official approval and must wait at least five months after they apply for a work permit. Processing times for the work permit applications can take up to five months, Charron said.

She said those who were unemployed and losing state support would have little choice but to turn back to the city for help.

“Keep in mind more people will be losing their benefits as they get their work documents,” Charron said. “The month of December is nine (families); the month of January will be those nine plus however many more who are receiving their work documents and losing their benefits, so it just goes on and on.”

A Pew Research Center report issued Tuesday showed that Maine has one of the smallest populations of “unauthorized immigrants,” with fewer than 5,000 in that category.

News of the funding depletion in Maine comes as President Barack Obama is expected to act by executive order and without Congress on a handful of immigration reforms that could include changes in how asylum-seeking immigrants are treated.

For those who were admitted to the U.S. by the federal government for fear they would be persecuted or killed in their home countries, the wait times to work and the stigma associated with accepting public benefits because they cannot legally work adds insult to injury, said Robyn Merrill, a senior policy adviser with Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants and the poor in Maine.

She said asylum-seeking immigrants are often put into the same category by some politicians as those who enter the country illegally by sneaking across borders or are over-staying work or student visas.

“They have documentation from the federal government saying they are here lawfully pending their asylum decision,” Merrill said. “To call them undocumented or to call them unlawful is really misleading. They are not illegal; they are here legally.”

It’s been a point of contention between the state and federal governments as well as state officials, including LePage, who have suggested the federal government should cover more of the costs of asylum-seeking immigrants and not shift those costs to state and city government.

Merrill said Tuesday that lawmakers approved the limited state funding for the program earlier this year as a simple stop-gap measure. She and others believe language in the law creating the cap on funding will end with the current budget.

She said most involved in the decision to fund the program and the budget amount knew the money would not last long enough. She said the policy change was meant to help cities as much as the immigrants they try to support.

Previous state policy was to end benefit eligibility as soon as asylum-seekers had permission from the government to work, even if they didn’t have jobs, Merrill said.

But whether the governor and the Legislature will continue to fund the program in the next budget cycle is unknown. LePage and his staff are in the process of crafting their next two-year budget proposal, which will likely be unveiled either late this year or early next.

Merrill said many of those seeking asylum in Maine, including dozens with professional work skills and educations, such as doctors, engineers and trained tradespeople, would be working in jobs that are going unfilled because of Maine’s aging and dwindling population problems, given the opportunity.

Once working, those asylum-seekers who have benefited from state aid and city aid while they searched for work or waited for permission to do so would contribute income and sales taxes the same as other gainfully employed Mainers, Merrill said.

“It doesn’t seem right that the cost should fall on the municipality, should fall on Lewiston, should fall on Portland,” Merrill said.  

She agreed the federal government should do more to support asylum-seekers it has allowed entry to the country and not simply expect city and state governments to foot the tab.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Merrill said. “The federal system is broken, too. It takes way too long; people are waiting for years to get an asylum decision and that’s long. The feds definitely have a responsibility here. It’s like the buck is being passed.”

But that doesn’t change the real-world situation for those families that will find out this week they are losing their benefits for food, Merrill said.

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