Yesterday, Governor Janet Mills announced that her administration has urged the federal government to provide financial aid to municipalities and organizations that are supporting asylum seekers in Maine. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services is enacting an emergency rule change to allow asylum seekers to be eligible for General Assistance if they provide evidence that they are taking “reasonable good faith steps” to apply for immigration relief.
Prior to this change, asylum seekers needed to provide proof they submitted an asylum application to federal authorities. In her announcement, Governor Mills argued that asylum seekers would benefit Maine’s economy and help fill our current labor shortage. It should be noted that the state does need more workers due to workforce insufficiencies.
However, the rule change is a risky financial endeavor and appears fiscally irresponsible given the status of the state’s current budget and existing waitlists. In sum, the rule change provides additional relief to municipalities for asylum seekers despite the fact that more than 1,600 Mainers sit on waitlists within Section 21 of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. This is just one example of vulnerable Mainers receiving inadequate care under our current budget.
Individuals waiting for services under Section 21 are some Maine’s most vulnerable citizens; individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Recently, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services recommended one of these individuals, Hank Homer, move to Florida for assistance. Some of those who are not currently receiving care have been on waitlists for several years. Group homes for these Mainers are closing, as are nursing homes for the elderly and disabled.
To be frank, skewed priorities in the Mills administration is not a new phenomenon. Governor Mills signed an executive order on her first day in office to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults, and then proposed a budget that provided substantial funding for these individuals while leaving Medicaid services for the truly needy largely underfunded. Instead of prioritizing the truly needy, Governor Mills decided adults without disabilities needed $125 million in state funds for Medicaid expansion through her biennial budget.
As of July 12th, nearly 29,000 individuals have enrolled through expansion, approximately 81 percent of whom were adults without children. Roughly 26 percent expansion enrollees are adults without children between the ages of 19 and 29.
Supporters of Mills’ announcement will be quick to label criticism of the rule change as anti-immigrant. Quite frankly, this isn’t an immigration issue — our economy truly needs the help and Maine should welcome legal immigrants with open arms.
However, we also need to ensure state government can afford the financial burden it will bear in making this change, especially considering the gridlock at the federal level that has made meaningful immigration reform nearly impossible to achieve. It’s unlikely that the asylum seekers who just arrived in Portland will be the last ones to venture to Maine.
Numerous individuals and organizations have committed their own time, effort and resources to offer assistance to those in Portland claiming asylum. In fact, the City of Portland has raised approximately $820,000 in private donations since last month to help cover the cost of these individuals. We must not forget that we are capable of solving our own problems through effort and goodwill—not everything requires a government subsidy (or a government solution, for that matter).
At its core, the rule change is an issue of good governance and fiscal responsibility. It also begs the question of what the state’s priorities are and should be in the future.