A proposal to expand MaineCare to low-income undocumented immigrants may be hampered over an influx of asylum seekers.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the press in Portland on May 10, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats are mostly united on a proposal that would expand public health care coverage to asylum seekers and other non-citizens in Maine.

But Gov. Janet Mills is not sharing her position on it nor including funding in her proposed addition to the state budget at the same time as southern Maine cities struggle to accommodate more than 1,000 asylum seekers primarily from Africa who have arrived this year.

The waiting game on the bill, which has sat on the House floor since a Democratic-led committee advanced it a few weeks ago, is playing out as the Legislature moves into the home stretch of trying to approve a final budget and adjourn before July begins. The situation has made it difficult to read how the measure will proceed.

“While I am not familiar with any hesitations regarding this specific proposed legislation, I do know anecdotally there is increasing anti-immigrant sentiment among many members of the Legislature,” Tobin Williamson, advocacy manager for the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which backs the bill, wrote in an email without elaborating on specific members.

The bill, LD 199, from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, would allow low-income, non-U.S. citizens, including undocumented residents, refugees and asylum seekers, who are 21 and older to qualify for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. It is estimated that the change would cost $17 million per year when fully implemented.

How many immigrants would be covered is unclear, but under federal law, asylum seekers cannot work for at least six months before coming to the U.S. To be eligible for MaineCare, a single adult cannot make more than $20,124 per year. For a family of four, the limit is $41,400.

People who are not U.S. citizens but who are pregnant or under age 21 can get MaineCare under changes that took effect under a 2021 state budget deal.

That move reversed a 2011 move led by former Gov. Paul LePage to make about 500 immigrants who had been U.S. residents for less than five years ineligible for MaineCare except for emergency benefits. The Republican-controlled Legislature at the time viewed the change to a chronically over-budget program as necessary during a period of economic strain.

Ben Goodman, a spokesperson for Mills, said Thursday the Democratic governor “does not have a comment” on the speaker’s bill. Earlier in the day, Mills did not take questions from reporters while attending a naturalization ceremony for 23 new citizens from 17 countries at a new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in South Portland.

Mills’ office has otherwise said she has proposed millions for affordable housing and municipal aid to help cities accommodate immigrants while pushing Congress to let asylum seekers work sooner after arriving in the country.

If the bill becomes law, Maine would join California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., in offering health care coverage to all low-income undocumented residents, with Washington and Minnesota joining the group by 2025. But the silence from Mills comes after a similar bill died in 2022 in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Immigrant advocacy groups said last year too many lawmakers were worried about the political consequences of expanding health care for immigrants ahead of the November election.

This year, lawmakers are not up for reelection, but pleas from officials in Portland and Sanford for more state and federal assistance to accommodate asylum seekers have kept politics squarely in the center of the thorny, long-running immigration debate.

Sanford officials and legislators have said the York County city lacks enough permanent housing to accommodate all of the 100-plus newcomers who moved there from Portland earlier in May. They want state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation to increase General Assistance support for cities and lobby the feds to let asylum seekers to work sooner.

While Republicans including Rep. Michael Lemelin of Chelsea, argued in legislative committee debate that the bill would bring “busloads of people into Portland,” research has shown little evidence states see an “influx” of undocumented immigrants when expanding health insurance.

This year’s bill has eight Democratic co-sponsors and cleared the Health and Human Services Committee in April in an 8-5, party-line vote after lawmakers heard testimony in support of it from groups such as the city of Portland, immigrant advocates, churches and medical groups.

Mary-Erin Casale, spokesperson for Talbot Ross, did not address the governor’s position on the bill in a statement, but said the proposal is “simple in language, yet wide-reaching in impact and will provide life-altering benefits for the individuals who gain coverage as well as their families, their communities and their places of employment.”

Supporters say health care is a “human right” and point to Maine’s median age topping the nation, with immigrants filling vital jobs in food, agriculture, health, home care and other industries.

Opponents include Rep. Ann Fredericks, R-Sanford, who said “welcoming others into our nation” is a “beautiful thing.” But “if we bring in a deluge of people regardless of what their citizenship is, we all will be impacted by it, delaying our access to care,” she said.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said former president and conservative icon Ronald Reagan believed “immigration actually makes America stronger.”

As the grandson of Italian and Lebanese immigrants, Baldacci added his family “came to this country for opportunity and to build business and build families, and we are going to continue to welcome people from all over the world.”

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...