Portland officials were undecided Thursday about their response to the LePage administration’s move to stop funding General Assistance for undocumented immigrants, as the Republican governor and Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills continued to spar over the change.

Meanwhile, the Maine Municipal Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine advised cities and towns to continue offering aid to undocumented immigrants despite warnings from the Department of Health and Human Services that municipalities will no longer be reimbursed.

“The directive puts the towns in a box: They can’t act one way or the other without a negative consequence,” said Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association.

The DHHS plans to formally notify municipal officials this week that the state will no longer pay for General Assistance that towns provide to undocumented immigrants.

Portland anticipates a disproportionate impact because of the recent influx of asylum-seekers, who sometimes rely on General Assistance before they can get federal work permits.

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 to meet basic needs such as housing, food and heating.

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.

Portland Health and Human Services Director Doug Gardner said he could not provide figures on how many recipients would be considered undocumented because “there is no box for immigration status” on the General Assistance forms.

But Mayor Michael Brennan said it would likely affect “hundreds” of people in Portland.

Brennan and city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said it was premature Thursday to speculate how the city will respond before City Manager Mark Rees and the City Council have had a chance to discuss the options.

ADVISED TO IGNORE DHHS DIRECTIVE

The DHHS announced its new policy in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

The administration said the change would affect “roughly 1,000 illegal aliens” statewide, saving the state more than $1 million a year, but DHHS officials did not provide documentation to support those estimates.

Maine is one of 11 states that have state-and-local General Assistance programs but is among just a few that base assistance solely on financial need, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute.

Herman, with the Maine Municipal Association, said cities and towns may face lawsuits from civil rights groups if they comply with the DHHS directive, or lose state reimbursements if they ignore it.

He said state law does not discriminate against any applicants as long as they are in financial need, and the only entity that can change that law is the Legislature. “So we are going to be advising (cities and towns) to follow the current statutes and current ordinances,” Herman said.

The ACLU of Maine is also urging communities to ignore the DHHS directive. The other option is for a municipality or an individual who is denied assistance to challenge the policy in Superior Court, said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine.

“We haven’t committed to representing anybody yet, but we are very committed to doing whatever we can to stop this,” Heiden said.

DIFFERENT DEGREES OF ‘ILLEGAL’

LePage defended his administration’s decision, saying that although the state shouldn’t turn its back on new arrivals, it has a responsibility to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement about people who are here illegally.

“What is it people don’t understand about ‘illegal?’ ” LePage said.

Asked about asylum-seekers who flee volatile countries and come to Maine but are technically here illegally until they get the proper paperwork, LePage said the federal government should help states.

Less than five months before Election Day, immigration reform and welfare reform are hot political issues nationally. Immigration appeared to be a factor in Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss to a more conservative primary challenger this week in Virginia, and the Obama administration is struggling with a flood of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border.

Most of Maine’s immigrants are coming from African nations torn by war or political strife, such as Somalia, Sudan and Burundi. While some are arriving via the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, others are coming to the U.S. legally with work visas, then seeking asylum after their visas expire.

AG CALLS POLICY LEGALLY FLAWED

Each side in Maine’s debate over General Assistance is accusing the other of playing politics.

“The governor and his administration once again are going around the Legislature. They do not want to follow the rules,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “This is a pattern by this administration that when they don’t get answers that they want, they steamroll ahead.”

Alfond was alluding to a memo May 16 from Attorney General Mills, advising that an earlier administration proposal to deny General Assistance to refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

Mills also said the rule change would pose an unfunded mandate on the 400-plus local governments that would have to determine immigration status for the first time.

Mills’ office subsequently raised similar concerns about LePage’s scaled-down proposal to deny General Assistance to undocumented immigrants. Mills said her office had not received a copy of any proposal as of Thursday.

FOR GOVERNOR, A FRIEND AND A FOE

Asked if he had received legal advice on the issue before making the decision, the governor said, “No.”

“I just read the Constitution,” LePage said. “There is nothing in there that says we have to (provide assistance).”

Based on her reading of the administration’s media release, Mills said the latest proposal still “raises significant practical and legal concerns.”

“They can’t ignore the legal issues by pretending that they don’t need to get legal advice,” she said.

LePage had little positive to say about the state’s top attorney.

“The attorney general disagrees with everything we put out,” he said. “She hasn’t done a thing in two years.”

Mills would not respond to LePage’s statement, other than to say her office’s six-page legal memo on the constitutionality of the DHHS’s original proposal was written by her office’s professional, non-political staff.

Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald, a frequent and vocal critic of public assistance programs, said he agrees with the administration’s decision to deny General Assistance to undocumented immigrants.

“We just can’t afford it,” he said. “I don’t mind helping people, but we’re doing it at the cost of helping our own people.”

MacDonald estimated that about 200 General Assistance recipients in Lewiston, about 12 percent of all recipients, are undocumented immigrants.