PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Gov. Paul LePage understands hardship. He was homeless for a time as a boy.
But tell that to Douglas Mpay, an immigrant from Angola who is seeking asylum in the United States and whose family relies on a municipal welfare program in Maine that the governor says will get no state funding if cities and towns continue to assist residents living in the country illegally.
“(The governor is) thinking about his political position, but he doesn’t think about how that will affect people,” Mpay said Thursday from his Portland apartment.
Local officials and municipal groups also say the governor is putting them in a precarious position. If they deny the benefits, they risk a lawsuit from immigrants. And if they provide the benefits, they would risk millions of dollars a year and have to turn low-income residents away.
But LePage, who has made reforming welfare a priority since taking office in 2011, insists the new policy will preserve assistance for the most needy and bring the state into compliance with federal law. He says that “illegal aliens who choose to live in Maine are not our most vulnerable citizens.”
“By following federal law and eliminating welfare abuse, we can provide a safety net for our most vulnerable,” he said in his weekly radio address. “We will be able to use our resources more effectively and efficiently to better provide Mainers a path to economic independence.”
LePage says cities and towns are free to use their own money to support immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
Mpay, who’s among the estimated 1,000 immigrants in the state who stand to lose the general assistance aid, said the governor’s policy will force his wife and two children out of their apartment with little options for other places to turn.
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mpay moved to Angola, where he said he was beaten and oppressed. He came to the U.S. seeking a better life and said he wishes he didn’t have to rely on general assistance, but has no way to provide an income for his family.
His application for asylum is still pending and he has yet to receive a work permit, he said. In the meantime, he’s volunteering at a local health center helping people sign up for insurance.
“I know that general assistance is something that helps us to get a start in the U.S. and I am willing to leave general assistance, if I could,” he said.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett dismissed the idea that the Republican governor who is seeking re-election is trying to score political points. She highlighted a federal law signed in 1996 that says those who are in the country illegally can’t receive local benefits.
But Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond, who represents Portland, said there seems to be little other reason for why this new policy has come to light now with voters going to the polls in November.
“Every time he can stir up his base and talk about general assistance, use ‘illegal aliens’ - which is clearly used to benefit this tea party rhetoric of fear and hate - I think he’s in good shape,” he said.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills contends the governor has no authority to circumvent the Legislature and has called the move unconstitutional. City officials in Portland and elsewhere say they will continue to provide the benefits for now and are considering taking legal action themselves against the state.