Maxwell Chikuta, center, who testified today on a proposal to bar asylum seekers and some other immigrants from accessing General Assistance in Maine.
During a three-hour public hearing, no one spoke in favor of the proposed rule that advocates say would eliminate the safety net of last resort for hundreds of immigrant families in Maine. In a written statement, a spokesman for DHHS said the rule aligns Maine's General Assistance program with the rules that govern federal benefits to those who are not documented citizens of the United States, and some legal non-citizens.
But Sue Roche, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, says there are legal reasons for the state to reconsider the proposal.
"The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits discrimination based on immigration status," Roche said. "And Maine's statute defining general assistance provides that all individuals wishing to make an application for relief shall have the opportunity to do so."
The Maine Attorney General's Office will have the final say about whether the proposed rule is legal and can be finalized. In the meantime, current and former GA recipients like Maxwell Chikuta of Portland - and a coalition of human rights groups, faith leaders and other immigrant advocates - are speaking out against it.
Chikuta calls himself a proud American and a proud Mainer. But he was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country in which civil war has left more than six million dead and displaced five million more. He says he had no education, and that when he arrived in Portland in 2003 he did not speak English and had little more than the clothes on his back.
"I had nowhere to live. I was living at a shelter, Oxford shelter, for some few days before the General Assistance came to my rescue," he said.
Chikuta says it took a while to secure his immigration papers. So while he waited, he pursued his education, learning English, getting his GED and eventually a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in public policy. Not long ago he got a full-time job at Maine Medical Center. He no longer receives General Assistance.
"This is what the program was designed for - to help people like me coming into this country with no papers, with no abilities to work," Chikuta said. "But you get your papers, you start working, you look back in the community, how you can pay back."
Advocates say it takes at least six months for immigrants to secure permission to work. And they say there are other reasons to reconsider the policy. For one thing, Maine is an aging state that needs young families to live and work here and to contribute purchasing power.
But Dr. William Barter of the Maine Council of Churches says there's also a moral imperative not to change the rule. "Any mean-spirited attempt to balance budgets at the expense of the ethical treatment of the most vulnerable among us is morally indefensible," he said.
For its part, the LePage administration says it is trying to ensure that limited resources are targeted to serve Maine's most vulnerable, including the elderly and those who are physically and intellectually disabled.
Photo: Susan Sharon