Final DHHS Rule on General Assistance for Immigrants due Any Day Now!

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Last Wednesday marked the deadline for finalization of the proposed DHHS rule that would define the new state law preserving eligibility for General Assistance (GA) for lawfully present immigrants. While the final rule has yet to be published, it is likely that it will be this week. Maine Equal Justice and others are watching closely as the proposed rule violated both the letter and spirit of the new law and would have left people out that the law intends to protect.

In June 2015, the Legislature passed legislation (LD 369) to maintain General Assistance (GA) eligibility for two categories of immigrants:  lawfully present immigrants whose eligibility is not already protected under federal law and immigrants who are pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief. Under the new law, both groups would be subject to a cap of up to 24 months of assistance.  Most of the people in Maine who fit into these categories are seeking asylum. The Legislature passed the law because policymakers recognized that taking away people’s only form of financial support when they are unable to work due to a complicated federal immigration process would have devastating and unacceptable consequences. Governor LePage unsuccessfully attempted to veto LD 369 and the legislation became law.

DHHS Misinterprets the Law

Last fall, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) proposed a rule that would unlawfully narrow the scope of the new state law in a way that would leave out many people who should qualify for needed assistance, including many people seeking asylum. The proposed rule arbitrarily and incorrectly defines “lawfully present in the United States” and “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.”  In effect, it would leave out people the law intends to cover, including those who are in the process of applying for asylum or other forms of immigration relief. The proposed rule also would have wrongfully expanded the scope of the new 24-month time limit applying it retroactively and subjecting groups to the time limits who were not subject to the new law, like refugees and lawful permanent residents.  

Maine Equal Justice worked in collaboration with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) and other allies to organize strong opposition to the rule at the rulemaking hearing on December 17th, 2015.  A broad range of people provided compelling testimony at the hearing, including asylum seekers, faith leaders, business leaders and legislators. Senator Volk who was instrumental in getting bipartisan support for the legislation in the Senate also provided strong testimony.

Final Rule due Any Day Now

DHHS had 120 days from the comment deadline to finalize the rule.  That deadline came and went last Wednesday on April 27th.  The delay could have to do with the fact that the Attorney General Janet Mills must approve the legality of the proposed rule in order to finalize it.  Based on the legal problems with the proposed rule, it is likely that the Attorney General recommended changes to what was proposed and DHHS had to make changes to respond to those concerns. For that reason, the final rule will probably look different than what was originally proposed.  Maine Equal Justice will be reviewing the final rule closely to determine whether it complies with state and federal law and will provide information on the final rule as soon as possible.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about the rule or the process, you can contact Joby Thoyalil at jthoyalil@mejp.orgor 207-626-7058 ext. 207.