Immigrants: Honesty, not incendiary political rhetoric

June 15, 2015 by

“Governor LePage is wrong to deny Maine families the help they need to provide for basic needs as they legally wait for their applications to be processed.  To present his budget to the public by misclassifying immigrants’ legal status is an unacceptable political stunt. “

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Ongoing budget negotiations may result in denial of basic services for thousands of legal Maine residents who are temporarily prevented from working due to national immigration laws.  A nation created by immigrants should not only support its immigrant population, but should not waste the potential of mutual benefit from the skills and experiences immigrants bring to our economic table.

Incendiary and misleading partisan rhetoric has distorted the debate and turned the lives of those coming to this country to escape persecution into political bargaining chips.  False characterization of who is benefitting from services such as general assistance and how many people make up these populations is unproductive to our democratic process and harmful to thousands of Maine families.

The robocall recorded by Governor LePage’s daughter circulated on June 1st referenced “welfare for illegal aliens” six times in the 90-second call.  This language is not only incendiary, but it also purposely advances an inaccurate portrayal of who the governor’s budget will really impact.  The budget would eliminate temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) and general assistance (GA) for non-citizens – a population of people encompassing thousands residing in Maine legally, including asylees and refugees, who should be entitled to the same services available to all lawful Maine residents.

Here are some facts to consider in the current debate:

As a percentage of population, Maine has the lowest percentage of illegal immigrants of any state in the nation.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, only 0.2% of all people living in Maine are unauthorized immigrants.  This is a small share of the total number of Maine residents who are non-citizens, which the Kaiser Foundation estimates to be 2% of Maine’s total population.

Unauthorized Immigrants Non-Citizens
Share of Maine’s Population 0.2% 2%
Number of People <3,000 21,500

The fiscal impact of unauthorized immigrants benefiting from welfare programs has similarly been grossly misrepresented in the way the LePage Adminstration has discussed cuts.  Denying welfare to non-citizens has most recently been estimated to reduce spending by $3 million in FY16.  However, because the share of unauthorized immigrants make up only one-tenth of all non-citizens, if their share of benefits were consistent with their share of population, this would amount to a savings of $300,000 in a final budget that will surely be well over $3 billion for FY16.

Additionally, this cut would have a disastrous impact on the thousands of legal Maine residents who are not U.S. citizens.  Characterizing those seeking or granted asylum as “illegal” is plainly and simply wrong.  The U.S. Immigration Service (USIS) monitors people legally seeking asylum who are required to be in the United States while USIS processes their applications.  Under the law, those seeking asylum must wait five months before applying for a work permit.  With the current backlog, applications for asylum can take months and even years to process, and during that time those seeking asylum are lawfully present.  Governor LePage has mischaracterized this process asserting that asylees, “take their sweet time and we pick up the tab.”

The efficiency of an asylum system is crucial; if the priority is to save money by reducing the number of non-Mainers benefiting from general assistance, the policymakers should encourage the federal government to make the asylum review process more efficient.  The extended period of time during which asylum seekers must stay in the U.S., unable to work, waiting to learn if USIS will grant their request, is not due to any choice they made, but the result of a slow and inadequate system.  If Governor LePage wants to champion an immigration cause, he should use his time and pulpit to pressure the Federal Government to reduce the backlog of asylee applications so states are not relied on to support the population of waiting applicants.  Fleeing persecution and coming to America for safety, asylees are interested in supporting their families and contributing to the economy as positive members of the community just like any other Mainer.  As one asylum seeker in Lewiston described, “all we truly want is to leave your assistance and be independent.”

Governor LePage is wrong to deny Maine families the help they need to provide for basic needs as they legally wait for their applications to be processed.  To present his budget to the public by misclassifying immigrants’ legal status is an unacceptable political stunt.

Precise, legal definitions of different classifications of immigrants are critical in order to prevent misrepresentation, and an understanding of how many Mainers actually make up these populations is imperative in making informed policy choices.  MECEP offers these definitions to help clarify policy discussion on the role of Maine’s safety net:

Alien:  any person not a citizen or national of the United States.  The term “alien” can be used to describe those residing both lawfully and unlawfully.

Asylee: a person unwilling or unable to return to his or her native country because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  Those seeking asylum must apply while in the United States.

Immigrant: a person who moves to a country where he or she intends to settle permanently.

Lawful Permanent Resident: a person who has immigrated legally but is not an American citizen.  This person has been admitted to the U.S. through a green card, which is valid for ten years before renewal is necessary.

Refugee: a person unwilling or unable to live in his or her native country because of past persecution or a well founded fear of future persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  Refugees are outside of the U.S. when they apply for resettlement.

Unauthorized/undocumented immigrant: foreign-born non-citizen who has stayed beyond the authorized length of his or her vista or who entered without a proper visa.

 

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