AUGUSTA — New rules proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services for the disbursement of General Assistance to immigrants and asylum seekers defy the intent of a law enacted earlier this year, according to numerous speakers who testified against the rules Thursday at the State House complex.

The proposed rules are the latest episode in an ongoing conflict between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and city leaders, advocates and legislators — mostly Democrats — over public assistance to immigrants and asylum seekers.

Thursday’s hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee came in response to passage earlier this year of LD 369, An Act to Clarify the Immigration Status of Noncitizens Eligible for General Assistance. The measure allows immigrants who are lawfully present in Maine or seeking a lawful status to retain the right to General Assistance funding for up to 24 months during their lifetime.

Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who sponsored LD 369, was among those who opposed the proposed rules.

“I am here to testify about some concerns I have about the proposed rule, which excludes some people that the Legislature intended to cover,” said Volk. “In summary, the proposed rule does not accurately define ‘lawfully present’ or ‘pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.’ … When you consider these rules, please consider the legislative intent, as well as Maine’s long-term needs.”

In written comments to the Bangor Daily News, DHHS responded to criticisms by referring to a federal court case earlier this year that found the state was not bound to reimburse municipalities for General Assistance expenditures but also could not penalize communities for disbursing the funds to immigrants and asylum seekers. The court also found that unless the Legislature enacted a law to allow asylum seekers to receive General Assistance, they would be ineligible under federal law.

“The LePage administration was correct to stop issuing these benefits, which cost taxpayers more than $3 million annually,” said Samantha Edwards, a spokeswoman for DHHS. “However, the Maine Legislature chose to override the administration’s efforts to ensure welfare benefits would not go to illegal immigrants and passed a state law allowing individuals ‘pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief’ to receive state funded welfare. Because the law was passed, DHHS is required to produce rules and provide this funding, despite the administration’s clear opposition.”

The rules contradict the intent of LD 369, according to Volk and others who testified Thursday. They do not require additional legislative action but do need approval from Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who has clashed repeatedly with LePage on this issue and his administration’s interpretation of the Maine Constitution and state law in its rulemaking.

Volk’s bill became a lightning rod for controversy late in the legislative session when it was among 65 bills LePage attempted to veto but after the deadline to do so. The Maine Maine Supreme Judicial Court ended up ruling against LePage, sending the bills into law.

The proposed rule would require municipalities to determine eligibility for General Assistance funds to immigrants and asylum seekers and track the number of months people in that population receive aid from the basic-needs program funded jointly by state and municipal governments but administered locally.

LD 369 capped General Assistance for immigrants and asylum seekers at a lifetime maximum of 24 months amid attempts by LePage and some Republicans to eliminate General Assistance eligibility for those populations. The rules also exclude a number of types of immigrants and would be applied retroactively.

“Clearly, the legislative intent … was to include all immigrants who are lawfully present,” said the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, vice president of the Maine Council of Churches. “That’s the language that both the House and Senate adopted.”

Several groups, including the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, oppose the new rules, claiming DHHS has misinterpreted the law and is seeking to change a definition of “lawfully present” that has been used in the past for the administration of state and federal benefits.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, was one of many who testified against the proposed rules.

“The new law was created specifically to protect vulnerable people who the proposed rule leaves out,” said Roche. “Many other vulnerable groups will be left out, including domestic violence victims, unaccompanied minors and people granted protections under the Convention Against Torture.”

Officials from several faith and charity organizations that provide housing, food and other assistance said they are already operating at maximum capacity.

“The faith community is stretched to our limit,” said Suzanne Lafreniere of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. “We are unable to do much more at this point.”

Among many who spoke during Thursday’s two-hour hearing were several recent immigrants who told stories about fleeing their home countries to escape violence and persecution and the financial challenges they faced once they arrived in Maine. Eugene Habiyambere of Lewiston, who came to Maine earlier this year from Rwanda, said he and his family — including an infant — were homeless until they received General Assistance. Habiyambere said he is working in a program called Workfare to in part repay what his family has been given.

“I am now looking to myself and looking to my wife and my kids as a future generation for Maine. We are going to contribute,” he said. “People may think we are here for financial gain like for our economic problems. No, we are here for our safety.”

Rosaline Kabwika Mukoma of Auburn came to Maine from South Africa in March of this year. They received General Assistance at first but she and her husband have both landed jobs in recent weeks.

“I didn’t know I was going to come to America,” said Mukoma. “Don’t deny us food on our tables. Don’t deny us a roof over our heads. Think of what you are going to do.”

Written comments on the proposed rules are being accepted until the end of December.

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