Gov. Janet Mills said in a debate Thursday Maine needs more asylum seekers and refugees in order to provide businesses with labor.
“Do I encourage them to come? Interesting question. I haven’t done anything to encourage or discourage them. But we have tried to make Maine a welcoming place,” said Mills.
“Because, look, I go around the state of Maine and business tell me what they need is more workers. These people have work credentials, they have experience, we need them to be here to work,” she said.
Under federal law, only those granted asylum status and permanent residency in the U.S. may legally work. Those who have applied for asylum status or who have had their requests for asylum rejected may not work legally in the U.S.
Most asylum claims are rejected, meaning an individual present in the U.S. cannot work legally, according to Dept. of Justice data. In recent years, only 14 out of 100 asylum requests were deemed legitimate.
Mills said she wanted Congress to pass a new law allowing certain non-citizens to work legally in Maine, though it was unclear whether she was referring to the minority of asylum seekers that actually get permanent resident status or to asylum seekers generally.
Currently, there are more than 500 families living in hotels and motels under the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program. Many — if not most — are asylum seekers, refugees, or foreign nationals — the state isn’t keeping track and can’t say how many are citizens and how many aren’t.
The ERA program never made citizenship a requirement when it started paying out the rental benefits. Although some states administering their ERA programs did make citizenship a requirement for receiving the benefit, Maine did not.
Since 2021, the state has been using federal money to pay for this population to stay in hotels and motels, but the federal funding supporting this program will expire at the end of the month.
The state hasn’t said what the plan is to deal with the sudden crisis of homeless refugees that could result in December, other than suggesting some affordable housing might be available.
A housing Commission in Augusta has floated the idea of creating a permanent new welfare program that would spend more than $182 million per year on housing assistance to replace the expiring federal program.