A vulnerable Maine Democrat spearheaded an effort to make migrants eligible for his state's welfare program, a policy that may hurt him at the ballot box in November given that it has resulted in a costly overflow of asylum seekers in the city of Portland.
As a state legislator, Rep. Jared Golden championed a bill in 2015 that declared asylum-seeking immigrants eligible for the state's General Assistance program, which provides free hotels, meals, and other essentials to elderly and homeless Mainers. As a result, an estimated 1,200 immigrants are now receiving emergency housing in Portland and are unable to work until they receive government approval, a process that can take several months. Portland officials in May informed federal immigration agencies that the city's hotels reached full capacity and are unable to shelter additional asylum seekers—just as federal funds for the program are set to expire.
"I am writing this email to alert you to the fact that as of the date of this email, there is no further shelter OR hotel capacity in Portland, Maine," wrote city Health and Human Services director Kristen Dow. "Additionally, because our staff are spread quite thin, it is not guaranteed that we will be in a position to aid individuals in their search for emergency housing."
Maine's migrant troubles could pose a problem for Golden, a member of the House's centrist Blue Dog Coalition, as he faces a tight reelection campaign against former Republican congressman Bruce Poliquin. Golden has tried to distance himself from the Biden administration's immigration policy—which is supported by just 33 percent of Americans—introducing legislation in May that would prevent the president from ending Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows immigration authorities to turn away asylum seekers at the border. As a state legislator, however, Golden welcomed an unprecedented number of asylum-seeking immigrants to his state with some of the most expansive welfare benefits in the nation.
"Voting to deny a helping hand to people who are far less fortunate than I am, who came here hoping to find peace and freedom … flies in the face of everything that I stand for," Golden said in 2015.
In the years since its implementation, the asylum policy has strained Portland's budget: While the migrants make up 2 percent of Portland's population, their welfare costs consist of 20 percent of the city's budget. The policy, which provides two years of assistance for each asylum seeker, cost the city $40 million between January and June alone to house some 400 families.
Maine pays for 70 percent of General Assistance funds to cities, with the remaining costs covered by the federal government in recent years amid the pandemic. The federal support is set to expire next month, however, meaning Portland may be forced to make cuts to other programs. Portland's city manager in April postponed a presentation of the city's budget due to concerns about the rising costs of housing asylum seekers.
Golden helped lead the effort to pass the 2015 migrant welfare measure in the state House in an 81-63 vote, which largely fell along party lines. State Democrats moved to pass the measure after then-Maine governor Paul LePage (R.) in 2014 halted state relief to cities that allowed asylum seekers to receive welfare, which he claimed was illegal. In a 2015 op-ed, the Maine Democrat dismissed criticism from Republicans that welfare for asylum seekers would lead to a shortage of funds for other programs.
"At a time when our state is operating with a revenue surplus, Maine does not have to choose between housing our elderly or housing asylum seekers," Golden wrote.
Bobby Reynolds, a senior adviser to the Golden campaign, told the Washington Free Beacon that the measure had strong Republican support in the state's Senate, but would not comment on whether Golden regretted his vote.
Portland in 2019 took in 450 African asylum seekers, many of whom were held in the city's sports arena for two months. Residents fundraised $1 million to help provide essential care, and others volunteered to house families. African immigrants in the General Assistance program spread the news to their families still abroad through WhatsApp, according to a July report in the Christian Science Monitor. Most of these African immigrants do not speak English and are often unable to begin work for more than a year.
Portland's mayor and manager did not respond to requests for comment. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the General Assistance Program, did not respond to a request for comment.