Maine Gov. Janet Mills warmly welcomed immigrants as “family” in her inaugural address last January. Now that hundreds of asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have landed in her state, Mills is calling on Uncle Sam to expedite emergency-relief money to accommodate the influx.
Mills, a Democrat, opened Maine’s cash spigot last month when she issued an executive order enabling more migrants to receive state welfare benefits. Welfare for non-citizens was a flash point in the final days of the 2019 legislative session. Though the Maine House voted largely along party lines to allow asylum seekers to qualify for General Assistance and other welfare programs, the Senate never acted on the bill. Maine officials conservatively estimate that the governor’s unilateral move will cost the state “several hundred thousand dollars, not more than a million dollars.”
Mills said she wanted to “welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy.” Yet the governor’s vision is fuzzy and her jobs-for-migrants gambit is problematic.
First, federal law bars asylum seekers from legal employment for six months while their status is determined in immigration court.
Second, tens of thousands Mainers are currently out of work. The state has a lower labor participation rate than the U.S. average and its unemployment rate is higher than neighboring Vermont and New Hampshire. Some 20 percent of Maine jobs lost during the Great Recession haven’t returned.
The financially strapped state “owes more than it owns,” piling up $9.9 billion in liabilities vs. $6.4 billion in assets, according to the nonpartisan State Data Lab.
While Augusta rolls out the welcome mat to migrants from across the globe, the number of Maine children living in “deep poverty” (half the federal poverty level) is rising eight times faster in America’s “Vacationland” than anywhere else in the country. And as officials shuttle migrants into new lodging, some 18,000 low-income Mainers remain stuck on waiting lists for state-subsidized housing.
Gov. Mills has yet to explain how hundreds of non-English speaking asylees — many of them poor, poorly educated and low-skilled — will be anything other than a drain on an already-strained public assistance system. But her actions indicate why she is seeking more funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Meantime, Maine is doubling down on irresponsibility.
Aaron Frey, who succeeded Mills as state attorney general, last week joined a lawsuit opposing the Trump administration’s broadened definition of who is considered a public charge and ineligible for citizenship based on use of government aid programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance.
Frey, a Democrat, also signed onto a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s new asylum policy. The rule, which requires asylum seekers to request refuge in countries they traversed before reaching the U.S., is a commonsense reform designed to slow the run on the border and ease the burden on states, including Maine.
Instead of engaging in faux munificence and counterproductive courtroom crusades, Mills & Co. should get their state’s dilapidated house in order, and heed the time-honored advice: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.