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Immigrants ask Maine's high court to rule that they can have food stamps

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will decide whether immigrants seeking asylum who have been cleared to work in the state but have not yet found jobs are entitled to food stamps.(WGME)

STATEWIDE (BDN) -- The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will decide whether immigrants seeking asylum who have been cleared to work in the state but have not yet found jobs are entitled to food stamps.

State law since 1997 has said needy immigrants qualify for food stamps while looking for work, but the Legislature has not funded the program for two years.

At issue is whether the Legislature should be forced to fund a service that state law says needy immigrants can receive, attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued.

A Portland family has appealed the denial of benefits of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to the state’s highest court. If successful, only the family would receive the benefits they previously were denied, their attorney said. But going forward, immigrants seeking asylum who qualified could receive SNAP benefits while looking for work, which attorney Jack Comert said could include between 100 and 150 people on any given year.

Attorneys for Maine Equal Justice Partners, who represents Euphrem Manirakiza, his wife Francine Kanyange and their children, all of Portland, said earlier this week that families have been forced to seek general assistance from municipalities to buy food because they can’t qualify for food stamps.

The last time lawmakers appropriated funding was in 2013 when they approved $261,384 for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

The budget stated the program would end when the money ran out, which was in January 2014, according to the briefs.

Questions from the justices focused on whether the Legislature’s intent was to end the program by allowing it to sunset at the end of the fiscal year in 2015 or if it just intended to defund it.

“The Legislature knows how to write sunset language and it’s not here,” Justice Donald Alexander said during oral arguments Thursday at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said the court had to determine what lawmakers meant when they approved the language in the statute. She questioned whether the Legislature’s language created an ambiguity in the law that justices needed to resolve.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Quinn who represents DHHS told the justices that the lawmakers unambiguously said non-citizens would no longer be eligible for SNAP benefits.

“There were no restraints and no exceptions,” he said.

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