Portland – Two women fleeing violence and persecution in their home country today asked to join a lawsuit challenging a Department of Health and Human Services rule change that would deny general assistance to asylum seekers and other immigrants in Maine lawfully.

Rehma Rebecca Juma and Suavis Furaha came to Maine to escape violence in their native Burundi. The ACLU of Maine and Maine Equal Justice Partners filed the complaint against DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew on their behalf.

“The LePage administration is barging ahead with a proposal that it has been told in no uncertain terms is unconstitutional,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “We have a rulemaking process in place for a reason – to protect the people of Maine from unlawful policies like this one. 

Juma and Furaha have both applied for asylum status, a process that can take months or even years to complete. In the meantime, they have not yet been granted work permits.  The rule change would mean that neither woman would be eligible to receive assistance, even though they have broken no law and have no other way to earn money.

Mayhew first proposed denying general assistance to some immigrants in December 2013. Following a public hearing attended by nearly 200 people who opposed the rule change, DHHS submitted the proposal to the Maine attorney general for legal approval. In May 2014, the attorney general informed DHHS that the rule would not be approved as it was likely unconstitutional 

Rather than withdraw the unconstitutional proposal, Mayhew altered it to deny general assistance to even more categories of immigrants and informed municipalities that the state would no longer reimburse them for general assistance payments made to the specified people. Further, Gov. Paul LePage declared that the state would cut off reimbursement for all general assistance payments, not only those made to immigrants, to towns that did not adopt the rule change. 

“General Assistance provides temporary support for people who are trying to build a new life after escaping terrible violence,” said Robyn Merrill, senior policy analyst for MEJP. “The vast majority of people impacted by this change are asylum seekers who are lawfully seeking refuge here. They are caught in legal limbo, unable to work and with few resources. The LePage administration is playing politics with people’s lives.”

The complaint charges that DHHS failed to follow the required rulemaking procedure for implementing such a change. It further charges that denying general assistance on the basis of immigration status constitutes illegal discrimination.

The groups seek to intervene in a case filed by the Maine Municipal Association, as well as the cities of Portland and Westbrook, in Cumberland County Superior Court earlier this month. The complaint, along with more information about the plaintiffs, can be found online at: www.aclumaine.org/juma-v-mayhew