Calling it “illegal alien welfare,” the LePage administration remains determined to keep asylum seekers in Maine from getting General Assistance benefits.

The Legislature has passed a fix, but the governor is sure to veto it. The amended version of LD 369 would allow immigrants seeking asylum to be eligible for General Assistance for two years. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, was passed by lawmakers but without a veto-proof majority in the House. Those who voted against the measure should reconsider the consequences of their vote — hundreds of people, many from countries rife with ethnic violence, torture and detention for opposing beliefs, left without assistance they primarily use for housing.

Portland, which has the largest number of asylum seekers in Maine, has decided not to wait for help from Augusta. Last week, the city council voted to set aside $2.6 million to provide general assistance to asylum seekers and refugees in the city. The vote was 5-4, highlighting the difficulty of this decision. Westbrook and Lewiston, other cities with many asylum seekers and immigrants, also are considering solutions to the problem.

“General Assistance is a state obligation, but we faced the prospect of 900 people being homeless on July 1,” Portland Mayor Mike Brennan said in an interview Monday. The city will cover the GA costs by taking money from other city accounts; taxes will not be raised.

It is the right decision, based on the constraints faced by those seeking political asylum in the United States.

To qualify for asylum, applicants must document that they and/or their family members have been harmed or threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group affiliation. If they fear mistreatment or torture if they return, they must explain why.

Under federal law, those who have applied for asylum may not even apply for authorization to work for 150 days from the date of their completed asylum application, so they have limited means to support themselves and their families. That’s why aid from the state and cities is necessary.

In recent weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services has been saying that two-thirds of asylum seekers are “defensive,” meaning they faced deportation and were in the U.S. illegally before seeking asylum. This is not the case in Portland, according to Sue Roche, executive director of the the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Center. But, she said, there are many reasons that these people can be classified as “defensive.” Arriving on the wrong type of visa, making mistakes on the lengthy application or trying to defend oneself without a lawyer in immigration court can cause immigrants to be labeled as “defensive.” Often when these mistakes are corrected, the applicants are granted asylum, Roche said.

Maine is old and white. As a result, the state’s economy languishes because the workforce is too small and too old to attract employers to the state or support significant growth among existing employers.

“We should be doing everything we can to bring people to the state rather than turning them away,” Brennan said.

Asylum seekers, such as Jerome Muhirwa, are a small part of that solution. Muhirwa fled Burundi four years ago and, on the recommendation of friends, settled in Maine. His wife and three children have since joined him in Westbrook. He works for Spurwink and is a minister at the Bethel Christian Center.

About three-quarters of General Assistance funds for asylum seekers go toward housing.

“Imagine I was not supported in one way or another,” Muhirwa recently said. “How could I get to this day where I become happy again?”

Immigrants such as Muhirwa will play an important role in Maine’s future. Giving them a helping hand while their paperwork is processed is the right thing to do.

Avatar photo

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...