The more than 200 asylum seekers who arrived in Portland from the U.S.’s southern border in June will have better prospects of getting into housing due to a recent change announced by Maine’s Governor Mills on July 18, 2019. This is welcome news for them, and for the State, as it will help them stay in Maine so that once they get their federal work permits, they can get to work right here and help offset the state’s workforce shrinkage.
The asylum seekers, who have been sheltered on an emergency basis at Portland’s Expo, are facing a mid-August deadline to leave the Expo due to that facility’s contractual obligations to the Red Claws basketball team.
However, challenges to moving into more permanent housing have been daunting since the asylum seekers, while legally here, will not be eligible for federal work permits for 180 days after they file their asylum claims, and therefore will be unable to support themselves for months.
Under state law, individuals who are lawfully present in the U.S. or are in the process of filing for an immigration status such as asylum, are eligible for General Assistance, with the state reimbursing 70% of the cost to towns that provide G.A. to them.
Unfortunately, the LePage administration improperly excluded most asylum seekers from G.A. by writing the G.A. regulations implementing the law too narrowly.
Governor Mill’s administration has taken a look at those regulations and agreed that they don’t comply with the statute, improperly excluding many immigrants who should be eligible for G.A.
Under rewritten regulations, Portland, and any other towns where asylum seekers might settle, should be able to get state reimbursement for G.A. assistance provided to the recent asylum seekers. This will help towns shoulder the challenge of getting the asylum seekers and their children into stable housing.
The best solution for the asylum seekers would be for federal laws to be revised to allow them to get to work right away. With Maine’s labor shortages, having people who want to work be legally unable to do so is an affront both to their dignity, and to economic good sense. Representative Chellie Pingree has proposed legislation that would speed up asylum seekers’ work authorization. Maine businesses should urge our Senators to support similar legislation in the Senate.
Maine can’t afford to waste human capital, but in the meantime, Governor Mill’s action will help these asylum seekers stay in Maine so that eventually, once they get their work permits, they can get to work right here where they are greatly needed.