AUGUSTA — The Maine House approved a bill Monday allowing asylum-seeking immigrants to collect up to 24 months of General Assistance payments from cities and towns. The bill faces additional hurdles in the Legislature and a likely veto from Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, largely split along party lines. The vote was 81-63 to approve the measure, which requires the state to reimburse Maine cities and towns for a portion of the benefits paid to those seeking asylum in Maine and awaiting permission from the federal government to work.

The issue has been a controversial one for Maine as the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has said taxpayer money going to help nonresident immigrants means there are fewer funds available for elderly and disabled residents, many of whom have been on DHHS waiting lists for years.

“You get the idea that we are turning our back on new Mainers, what we are turning our back on are lifetime Mainers, Mainers who have been here,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. “Again, we are $30 million short on clearing our wait lists.”

But Democrats have argued that Republicans have insisted on cutting income taxes, which also has consequences for the waiting lists at DHHS. They argued that Republicans were pitting one group of disadvantaged people against another.

“House Republicans presented a series of false choices today to justify denying a helping hand to vulnerable people who have fled their homes to escape persecution,” Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said. “At a time when our state has a revenue surplus, and when the Legislature can afford to hand out a $10 million tax break to Maine’s 7,000 wealthiest, earning more than $370,000 per year, it is misleading to claim that Mainers must choose between caring for our elderly and disabled and providing shelter and food to asylum-seekers.”


Proponents of the measure argue that for some immigrants, particularly asylum-seekers, the assistance is crucial for bridging the gap between their arriving in the U.S. and attaining permanent residency. Asylum-seekers, who often flee detention, rape, torture and other forms of persecution in foreign countries, are not allowed work permits during that period, which averages about 18 months.

In Portland, where the majority of the affected people live, some estimates were that up to 1,000 people would lose their benefits at the end of this month and face homelessness.

Monday’s vote follows a more bipartisan, 29-6 approval of an amendment to the bill by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that placed the 24-month limit on the benefits. An earlier 21-13 vote in the Senate rejected a bill that would have ended General Assistance payments for nonresidents.

But in the House on Monday, only two Republicans, Ellie Espling of New Gloucester and Kevin Battle of South Portland, joined Democrats in supporting the bill. Seven lawmakers were absent for the vote. 

To overturn a veto, lawmakers need a two-thirds majority, or at least 101 votes in the House and 24 votes in the Senate.

The bill returned to the Senate for additional votes.

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