Maine’s Democratic governor has expanded aid for hundreds of asylum seekers who have arrived in the state’s biggest city this summer, and said she’s asked the federal government for swift funding to help the state address the influx.
Gov. Janet Mills said her administration’s new regulations will allow asylum seekers to qualify for general assistance vouchers if they prove they are taking “reasonable good faith steps” to apply for immigration relief. Asylum seekers have one year to file for asylum under federal law, which also prohibits such individuals from working for at least six months after they apply.
Such aid will help asylum seekers prepare to enter the workforce, the governor said Thursday.
“This amended rule assists cash-strapped municipalities dealing with an unexpected influx of people, and it motivates all families who are lawfully present in our state to complete every step on the path to asylum and, hopefully, on the path to citizenship,” Mills said.
State law requires municipalities to offer food, housing, electricity and medical expense assistance to low-income people. The state reimburses 70% of costs.
Her administration estimates the new regulations will cost “several hundred thousand dollars, not more than a million dollars,” Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said.
The battle over general assistance for asylum seekers flared in 2014, when Maine’s previous Republican governor moved to withhold state aid for asylum seekers.
A 2015 law allows individuals who are “lawfully present” and “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief” to receive general assistance for up to 24 months. But Mills’ office said the previous administration ended up passing “extremely” narrow regulations that excluded some non-citizens, including victims of human trafficking.
Those regulations also required an asylum seeker to complete and submit a formal application for asylum.
The policy went too far, Mills said. Her office said Thursday that “this runs counter to the Legislature’s intent to restore general assistance eligibility for those pursuing a lawful process to seek asylum, a complex process that begins before filing a formal application.”
Mills last month transferred about $170,000 from her contingent account to the Maine State Housing Authority to provide temporary rental housing assistance to asylum seekers for up to 12 months. Meanwhile, the Portland Expo Center has housed about 320 asylum seekers to date, and the city’s received over $800,000 in donations to help them.
Still, Mills said such efforts fall short of what’s needed.
This month, President Trump signed a law to provide $30 million in funding by July 31 to communities that have experienced an influx of people seeking asylum.
Mills announced she’s asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure Maine receives such funding “sooner rather than later.” Maine’s congressional delegation asked FEMA on Thursday to release its funding formula.
Mills said the federal government should take into account Maine’s low income and high housing costs relative to other states.
“I believe it is time for the federal government to do its part too,” she said.