Lifeline for immigrants sole remaining issue in budget debate

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, chair of the Appropriations Committee, meets with Maine immigrants in the halls of the state house in May. - Mario Moretto | BDN

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, chair of the Appropriations Committee, meeting with Maine immigrants in the State House in May. – Mario Moretto | BDN

Last night, Maine’s legislative leaders announced a budget compromise. It will be voted on in the House and Senate today and should pass with bi-partisan support. The details aren’t entirely clear at this point, but the package apparently contains income tax cuts, a Republican priority, but weighted somewhat less heavily to the wealthy than the GOP had initially proposed. It’s not clear what, if anything, Democrats received in exchange for the tax cuts.

One vital issue still remains to be settled, however, the fate of around one thousand asylum-seeking immigrants and their families, who could be made homeless starting July 1st if the budget fails to include a provision positively affirming their eligibility for General Assistance (GA).

The budget agreement as currently constituted contains full funding for GA for asylum-seekers. On May 31st, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee voted 9-4 to reject the Governor Paul LePage’s cuts and continue the assistance for immigrants (with Republican senators Roger Katz and James Hamper voting in favor). With the divided court ruling last week, however, a wrench was thrown into the works. Now, not only must the money be appropriated, but its use must be positively affirmed in law, or else the LePage administration could still cut off GA reimbursements to Maine cities and towns – refusing to spend the funding that has been allocated.

An amendment to add this affirmative language to the budget will be run in both the House and Senate and seems to stand a good chance in both chambers. In the House it has the support of the Democratic majority and in the Senate it has Democratic support as well as some champions among the Republican majority. These include stalwart conservative Senator Amy Volk of Scarborough, who has been distributing “floor sheets” to her colleagues in support of allowing immigrants to access General Assistance. A handful of Senate Republicans will have to vote with Democrats in order for it to pass and be incorporated into the budget.

As the clock ticks down, supporters of the amendment are working hard to solidify these last few votes . A group of religious leaders, led by the Roman Catholic Diocese and the Maine Council of Churches, rallied in the State House this morning and yesterday business leaders spoke out about the economic and humanitarian crisis that could be caused if the funding isn’t affirmed in the budget.

Most of Maine’s newspaper have editorialized in favor of immigrant access to GA, with the MaineToday newspapers accusing Republicans of using tactics that have made the budget debate “like negotiations with kidnappers” and declaring that their opposition is founded on “small-minded anti-immigrant animus.”

That animus will likely continue throughout the last few days of this debate, and it makes the final outcome somewhat uncertain. More tactics like the vicious robo-calls accusing legislators of supporting welfare for “illegal aliens” are to be expected.

Asylum seekers are, of course, in the country legally and are prohibited from working for a period of time as their claims are heard. They aren’t eligible for other government support and GA is their only lifeline as they work to get on their feet and build a new life in Maine after fleeing violence and persecution.

As Jared Golden, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and now a state representative from Lewiston, noted in an op-ed over the weekend, some of the immigrants now at risk are the same people who helped American soldiers and whom he fought to protect overseas.

“I’ll never forget the Afghan girl I met who had acid thrown in her face because she attended school,” wrote Golden. “I fought in regions where tribal leaders were executed for working with Americans like me to bring security to their people.”

Many asylum seekers are skilled professionals and they all crossed oceans and continents to build new lives in Maine. They bring exactly the energy the state needs as its population ages.

It’s hard not to think that if these were European immigrants, instead of coming mainly from Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, they would be welcomed in a heartbeat.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.