A man talks on the phone at the emergency shelter setup inside the Portland Expo building on Wednesday. Hundreds of new asylum seekers, mainly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, started arriving in Portland last week.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Amid a surge of African asylum seekers coming to Portland, the Democratic-led Maine House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday to restore certain aid to immigrants, but it didn’t pass by the time lawmakers adjourned for 2019.

The measure began as a Democratic proposal to restore access to anti-poverty programs for recent immigrants that was barred in 2011 under former Gov. Paul LePage at a cost of $7.3 million per year, but it was amended to eliminate that price tag and restore access by using existing resources.

The fiscal impact and scope of the aid is unclear, but the bill would direct the administration of Gov. Janet Mills to give immigrants legally in the U.S. access to assistance programs including the state’s version of Medicaid, food stamps and a cash assistance program by November 1.

It was endorsed by the House in a 88-51 vote on Wednesday with all Democrats backing it except for Rep. Robert Alley of Beals and with all Republicans opposing it. However, the measure never went to a vote in the Senate before the Legislature adjourned early Thursday, leaving its status in limbo. Lawmakers could pick it up later this year or in 2020.

For months, Portland has seen an influx of asylum seekers, most of whom of late have been from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring Angola, and have ended up at the southern border after journeying through Central America.

At the border, immigrants who fear persecution in their home country for reasons that include religion and political beliefs have the right to apply for asylum. Those cases can take between six months and several years amid a backlog, according to the National Immigration Forum.

For the first six months, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. A recent change in policy has led the federal government to send asylum seekers to their preferred destination before they have begun the process. Hundreds have arrived in Portland during the past 10 days.

Many have chosen Maine’s largest city because of its reputation for being welcoming to immigrants, backed by a public fund providing rental and other assistance to immigrants that is the only one like it in the country and is being depleted while raising funds from donors.

Wednesday’s House debate was full of references to Maine’s status as the nation’s oldest and whitest state, with some supporters likening the current immigrants to their ancestors and many saying the state’s graying workforce would benefit from an infusion of new workers.

Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, who backed the bill, said if the state is “not welcoming,” the Maine economy will “eventually be based on empty homes, funeral homes and cemeteries.”

Republican arguments against the bill ran the gamut, with Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, saying the bill was aimed at “achieving some progressive notion of what the proper racial balance ought to be.” Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, blamed federal law for the issue.

“I feel like if we do this, we are turning our backs on our own people,” said Rep. Josanne Dolloff, R-Rumford.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...