Welfare for non-citizens bill lurks in Maine House as session nears end

Left: Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon, Center: Mayor Ethan Strimling, Right: Governor Janet Mills.

AUGUSTA – A bill that would provide welfare benefits to non-citizens, even those who have yet to officially start the process of seeking asylum in the United States, is lurking in the Maine House of Representatives calendar as the current session of the Maine Legislature nears adjournment.

The bill would provide cash benefits, SNAP (food stamps) and make non-citizens eligible for Medicaid in Maine. Sponsored by Rep. Drew Gattine, the bill was supported by Democratic members of the House and Senate in a divided vote of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee last month. The bill has a price tag of over $14 million as of an April 21 estimate.

READ MORE: Maine welfare for non-citizens bill approved by committee, big price tag revealed

Supporters of the bill included Senator Nate Libby, who serves as the Majority Leader of the Maine Senate, and Rep. Kristen Cloutier (D – Lewiston). Other supporters of the proposal include a slew of liberal special interest groups that advocate for expansion of welfare benefits and other programs for non-citizens.

Under the proposal, even non-citizens who are not in the United States legally and have not yet filed for asylum in the United States would qualify for the benefits.

Welfare benefits for non-citizens were rolled back by Republicans under Paul LePage and have been a point of contention in the Maine Legislature ever since, largely due to insistence by Democrat lawmakers that funding cash benefits, food stamps and Medicaid for non-citizens should be a higher priority in Maine’s state budget.

In response, Republicans point to waiting lists for disabled Mainers waiting for services, the number of nursing homes that have closed across Maine largely due to low reimbursement rates, and a need to provide better services to veterans as priorities that should be put ahead of handing out taxpayer funded welfare benefits to non-citizens.

Under the LePage welfare reform, non-citizens who were elderly, disabled, victims of domestic violence, who had other hardships, or were unemployed but had obtained proper work documentation were allowed to continue receiving SNAP, but other non-citizens were removed from eligibility.

In the cash benefits portion of the bill, a non-citizen would not need to be present legally in the United States, although those here legally would qualify. Instead it would allow non-citizens who have submitted a request for immigration relief, or those who verify they are taking ‘reasonable steps’ to pursue immigration relief.

It is unclear from the language in the proposed law what ‘reasonable steps’ to pursue immigration relief would mean, but the bill clearly would provide Maine taxpayer funded benefits to non-citizens who have not yet filed the appropriate requests to be present in the United States legally.

An official with the Department of Homeland Security last week said that 90% of the migrants who file with the federal government to seek asylum don’t show up at court for their asylum hearing.

As the crisis at the southern border of the United States has worsened in recent months and hundreds of migrants from Congo and Angola who have yet to start the process of seeking asylum arrive in Portland, interest in the issue is rising.

Governor Janet Mills has visited Portland and told local leaders that “we are all in this together” as the city struggles to handle the influx of people.

Mayor Ethan Strimling and Portland City Manager Jon Jennings seem to be at odds over how much Portland can afford to pay without help from the state and surrounding communities. Mayor Strimling says he just doesn’t see the high costs people are concerned about, but yesterday Jennings told the press that Portland can’t take care of the migrants on their own.

Neighboring cities Westbrook and South Portland have held meetings in recent days to discuss what those communities can do to relieve the burden on Portland, but public opinion remains mixed at best.

Mayor Ethan Strimling has made national news in recent months for his attempts to pick a fight with President Trump, telling reporters that he would tell illegal immigrants “Welcome Home” and saying “Bring them on” in regard to his city receiving even more migrants.

Many people view Strimling’s unabashed public statements and the fact that Portland has created the only municipal level non-citizen welfare program in the nation as the most likely causes of the current crisis and they wonder why taxpayers across Maine should be asked to foot the bill for Portland’s decisions.

A discussion at a Portland City Council meeting last month revealed that Portland officials were working with senior officials in the Mills administration on an “administrative change” that would send more state welfare dollars to Portland to pay for non-citizens.

READ MORE: Gov. Mills may bypass Legislature to expand welfare for non-citizens in Portland

The city’s human resources director tore into Strimling for his public statements, saying that city staff was already stretched thin dealing with the current number of people in need of services, and that Strimling was bringing them in to put them on mats on the floor.

“When you’re on national TV, telling the world ‘bring them on’… it’s bring them to a place that’s overcrowded and they’re on mats. You’re putting them in a terrible position and then asking them what we should do. But please think about what you’re asking our staff. Please,” she said.

Statutory adjournment for the Maine Legislature is Wednesday, June 19th. If the legislature were going to try to approve the non-citizen welfare proposal before adjournment, they would need to bring the bill up quickly to rush it through the Legislature.

Currently the bill, L.D. 1317, is listed as the second item on the unfinished business portion of the advance calendar of the Maine House for Tuesday, June 18th.

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