The Maine Department of Health and Human Services says it will enforce its plan to eliminate state support for undocumented immigrants who apply for or receive General Assistance benefits.

The department’s announcement, made Wednesday in a news release, appears to defy Attorney General Janet Mills’ finding last month that denying benefits to immigrants violates the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said her department will notify municipalities of the change this week, and the change will be made immediately. The General Assistance program is run by cities and towns, with funding from the state.

“We are moving forward and will continue our efforts to align programs with federal rules to ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are used appropriately for those in need and protected for those who are legal residents of Maine and this country,” Mayhew said in a prepared statement.

Mayhew said the new enforcement will affect about 1,000 people and save the state more than $1 million a year.

Mayhew said, “If municipalities choose to offer assistance to illegal, undocumented immigrants, they will do so without state funding support.”

Most of the people who will be affected live in Portland, said Mayor Michael Brennan.

“It’s a stunning development by the department,” he said late Wednesday. “It’s just another way to make an end run around the Legislature and the rules-making process. In Portland, it is going to impact hundreds of people, who will be left homeless and without food.”

Brennan, a former state legislator, said such a significant change in General Assistance regulations requires legislative review and public hearings.

In Portland, an applicant for General Assistance must demonstrate only a need for a place to live and food to eat. The city doesn’t look at a person’s immigration status, Brennan said.

Mills questioned the move by the DHHS, calling it unconstitutional and an unfunded state mandate on cities and towns. She said she isn’t sure how a city or town clerk will be able to determine whether someone is an illegal immigrant.

“You can’t make every town in Maine a mini immigration office,” Mills said.

The state reimburses most municipalities for as much as 50 percent of General Assistance costs. It pays as much as 90 percent of the costs for Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, where there is more need for assistance.

Portland spent $9.7 million on General Assistance in fiscal 2012-13, with 31 percent going to refugees, visa holders, asylum applicants and people who had been granted asylum.

John Martins, spokesman for the DHHS, wrote in an email that federal law says that unless a state has a statute that allows for welfare benefits to be provided to those groups, it is against federal law to provide them. Maine has no such statute.

Martins said the new policy will apply to any immigrant who doesn’t have proper documentation.

State law governing who is eligible for General Assistance contains no citizenship requirement, said Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst with the Maine Equal Justice Partners advocacy group in Augusta. For the state to change the rules governing eligibility, she said, the law would have to be changed.

“I think it’s incredibly irresponsible of the state that they are planning to go forward when they can’t do this legally,” Merrill said. “It was a very clear and decisive decision coming from the Attorney General’s Office.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com