AUBURN — A recent increase in the number of asylum-seekers requesting General Assistance isn’t isolated to Lewiston. 

According to officials in Auburn, there has also been a jump in the number of people seeking asylum on the other side of the Androscoggin River. The increase is squeezing budgets at a time when state welfare programs are being targeted by Gov. Paul LePage.

Dot Meagher, director of Auburn Health and Social Services, said more people are coming to Auburn because of longer wait times in Lewiston. 

Meagher said her department has been slammed with new requests since June, mostly from asylum-seekers. An automated phone message at the Health and Social Services office asks people to remain patient given the recent “high volume of calls and requests.” 

According to Meagher, Auburn served 10 families seeking asylum in fiscal 2015-16, at a cost of $10,988. So far this fiscal year, starting July 1, 2016, the city has served 47 families, costing $58,885. 

“You can easily see the increase,” she said, adding that she’s worried about going overbudget for the year. She said she’s requested more funding next year. 

Social services in Auburn is overbudget for the year by about 18 percent compared to this time in fiscal 2015-16. 

According to the January financial report compiled by Finance Director Jill Eastman, the Auburn Health and Social Services Department has already spent 65 percent of its budget for this year. 

In her report, Eastman said, “the primary cause of this increase is on the (General) Assistance side of the budget and is due to the number of asylum-seekers that the department is seeing.” 

General Assistance provides vouchers for food, shelter and other necessities to those in need. Political asylum is a legal status that must be determined by a court and can sometimes take years. 

In fiscal 2015-16, Auburn spent $92,734 on General Assistance. With four months still to go in this fiscal year, the city has spent $139,389. 

“All of the increase is with asylum-seekers,” Meagher said, adding she is in regular contact with the state to keep up on benefit funding. “We try to minimize the expense to the municipality as much as possible, but there are a lot of roadblocks.” 

She is the only full-time employee of the department, with one other part-time employee. 

Last month, city records in Lewiston showed the number of asylum-seekers could nearly double this year compared to fiscal 2015-16. In comparison, Lewiston’s General Assistance budget is much larger than Auburn’s. Lewiston spent $773,778 in fiscal 2015-16. The city also provided General Assistance to 355 asylum-seekers in the first half of this fiscal year. 

At the end of January, Lewiston’s General Assistance office was scheduled for 60 intakes for the month of February. 

The increases in both cities come at a time in which the statewide General Assistance program is under fire from the governor, whose two-year budget proposal seeks to eliminate the program. The measure would cut off $12.1 million in allocations to Maine municipalities for General Assistance next year. 

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald has frequently been outspoken on the issue, often mirroring the stance of LePage, who has long sought to cut off General Assistance to asylum-seekers, who are not yet citizens. Macdonald told the Sun Journal in January that he’s in favor of General Assistance for those in need, not for those “gaming the system.”

However, he also said he’s in favor of the governor’s proposed budget. 

During a Monday luncheon discussing the governor’s budget, Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte touched on the General Assistance proposal, but no questions were raised. LaBonte is director of the Office of Policy and Management for LePage.

LaBonte couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Typically, those receiving General Assistance are required to reapply for the vouchers each month and attend job placement programs. Meagher said those receiving aid in Auburn are required to come in each week, where staff checks on work status and requirements to attend language courses if needed. 

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said the city only provides General Assistance to those who qualify for the state’s 70 percent reimbursement to the city. Asylum-seekers can receive General Assistance for up to two years.

In Portland, the city is authorizing General Assistance spending for some asylum-seekers who do not qualify for the state reimbursement. 

Sue Charron, director of social services in Lewiston, said the majority of people approved for General Assistance are only on the program for less than a year. She said 89 percent of recipients were on the program for 12 months or less, while 69 percent were on the program for five months or less. 

Meagher said Auburn is on par with those statistics. The two municipalities keep in touch regularly, she said, to make sure families aren’t assisted at one office, then go to another. 

She said from her experience, asylum-seekers are generally successful in finding employment quickly. Her office connects General Assistance recipients with local career centers, and she said many come back to her office proud to have secured a job. 

“They’re pretty committed to finding employment, and kudos to them,” she said. 

Once an individual arrives in the country, they are not allowed to apply for benefits until they apply for asylum. From there, they must wait 150 days to apply for an employment authorization card. Meagher said in her experience, that takes another two months on average.

Once there, individuals can apply for a Social Security card, taking another six weeks. She said the entire process takes about eight or nine months. 

Meagher said there’s a sense of fear among those coming into her office recently, who are often worried about the national conversation surrounding immigrants, despite being here legally. She said families are asking for copies of asylum requests and other documents to keep on them. 

In Lewiston, Barrett said “it’s impossible” to say at this point what the city would do if the state eliminates the General Assistance program.

He said if municipalities were no longer required to offer General Assistance, the City Council would have to “consider a number of options including simply no longer offering a General Assistance program, continuing the program as it currently operates, or designing a new local-only program which might have different eligibility requirements and support levels.”

However, he said, “To predict the outcome at this point would be both responding to a hypothetical situation and based on pure speculation.”

With a Democratic-controlled Legislature, it is unlikely the governor’s proposed budget will remain intact. 

a[email protected]

General Assistance in Auburn

July 1, 2016 – Feb. 28, 2017: $139,389

Individual cases: 106

Asylum-seekers: 47

July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2016: $92,734

Individual cases: 121

Asylum-seekers: 10

Comments are not available on this story.