Maine Attorney General Janet Mills is blocking Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to exclude asylum seekers from other countries from receiving General Assistance aid.

Mills, a Democrat whose office reviewed the Republican administration’s proposed rule changes, is refusing to sign off on the measure, which would cause as many as 1,000 immigrants in Maine to lose access to a program that provides the poor with vouchers for necessities such as food and housing.

In an interview late Thursday, Mills said the primary flaw in the proposal is that it violates a provision in the Maine Constitution that prevents the state from requiring local governments to increase spending unless the state provides at least 90 percent of the funding.

Under LePage’s plan, Mills said, municipal clerks – particularly in communities with large immigrant populations – would have to spend a lot of time and money trying to determine the immigration status of people who apply for General Assistance. The program now is based only on financial need, not citizenship status.

“It’s extremely burdensome,” she said of LePage’s proposal.

Also, Mills said, the governor is not authorized to make such a major rule change without legislative approval, and the rule would violate the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Maine constitutions.

Assistant Attorney General Justin Barnard spelled out the legal argument in a five-page memo to the Office of Family Independence, dated May 16. The Portland Press Herald obtained a copy of the memo Thursday.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, declined to comment. Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, could not be reached Thursday night.

The governor has made welfare reform a priority in his three-plus years in office and a major theme of this year’s re-election campaign.

Maine is one of only 12 states that provide General Assistance to childless adults who have no disabilities, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

The change would align Maine’s program with federal aid programs, which don’t provide benefits to immigrants until they have been in the country for five years, DHHS spokesman John Martins said at a hearing on the rule change in January.

In Maine, municipal governments administer the General Assistance program but the state pays most of the cost.

In Portland, more than 4,000 individuals and families received General Assistance in the last fiscal year, with 90 percent of that money spent on food and shelter, according to the city.

Unlike refugees, immigrants seeking asylum typically arrive in the United States on legal visas and then apply for asylum saying they are being persecuted in their native countries.

Portland has had a surge in newcomers seeking asylum in recent years.

They have come primarily from three countries: Burundi, Rwanda and the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all former colonies of Belgium.

Unlike refugees, they don’t get much support once they are here. They do not qualify for any federally funded assistance programs, such as welfare, food stamps or Section 8 housing vouchers.

Immigrants seeking asylum must wait 150 days before receiving employment authorization cards.

Maine’s economy needs more skilled workers, and immigrants who seek asylum typically are well-educated professionals who find work quickly once they get permission to work, said Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Community Financial Literacy, a nonprofit in Portland that teaches financial skills to immigrants.

He said many immigrants in Portland are calling him and sending him email messages expressing their joy about Mills’ decision.

“Oh my Lord,” he said, “I cannot tell you how happy I am.”

Under LePage’s plan, Portland would have the choice of making hundreds of immigrants homeless or asking Portland taxpayers to pay the full cost of funding the program for asylum seekers in the city, said Mayor Michael Brennan.

Mills’ decision is “great news,” he said.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected]