Here’s a suggestion for all you municipal clerks and welfare officials who are scratching your heads this week all over Maine: When the Department of Health and Human Services orders you in the next day or two to start culling any and all “illegal immigrants” from your General Assistance rolls, think “Spartacus.”

As in the climactic scene in the 1960 movie classic of the same name: The 1st century Romans, hell-bent on finding the title character among a throng of his fellow slaves, offer all of them leniency if they’ll just give up their leader, Spartacus.

But even as Spartacus stands to identify himself, the other slaves simultaneously rise all around him, each proclaiming “I’m Spartacus! … I’m Spartacus! … I’m Spartacus! …”

Fast forward to today, when the appropriate response to the DHHS might be, “We’re all illegal!” In addition to being highly entertaining, it just might derail the latest juggernaut in the LePage administration’s never-ending war on the poor.

This much we know: In a press release issued Wednesday, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew announced a “shift in enforcement protocol” for the state reimbursing municipalities for General Assistance benefits given to “undocumented, illegal immigrants.”

A new state law? Nope.

A DHHS rule change? Not even.

A major policy change devoid of any public input whatsoever? Bingo.

“It’s like . . . Big Brother is watching you,” said Attorney General Janet Mills in an interview Thursday. “If you dare apply for General Assistance at the local town clerk, you’d better have all kinds of ID on you to prove you’re not an illegal immigrant, even if you’ve lived here your whole life. That’s the rub.”

Mills, who last month nixed a broader DHHS General Assistance crackdown on the grounds that it was . . . what’s the word . . . unconstitutional, is one of many Mainers who see the latest DHHS bombshell as thinly veiled fodder for Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election campaign. (See Tuesday’s primary in Virginia in which Republicans chose a tea party neophyte over U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor because Cantor, among other things, had the gall to even consider the need for meaningful immigration reforms.)

Mills’ objections to the latest DHHS mandate are threefold – despite the fact that so far, like everyone else, all she’s seen is the press release.

First, Mills said, Mayhew & Co. made no attempt to even mimic the democratic process by submitting a bill to the Legislature or invoking the rule-making process, complete with public hearings, opportunities for written comment and other safeguards against what she called “government by fiat.”

Second, in violation of the Maine Constitution, the change represents an “unfunded mandate” on cities and towns that apparently will become the sole arbiters of who is “illegal” and who is “one of us.”

” ‘Illegal’ is not a defined term,” Mills said. “Who knows what ‘illegal’ is? Does some town clerk in Ashland, Maine, know what ‘illegal’ means? How would they know what a green card or a pink card or an asylum seeker is? Or any of the other multiple categories of immigration? There are thousands of pages of federal statutes and rules on immigration – you can’t expect the municipalities to know all that stuff.”

Finally, there’s that pesky Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It requires that each state apply its laws equally not just to its citizens, but to “any person within its jurisdiction.”

Meaning, local public servant, if you ask one person for proof of his or her citizenship or legal residency, you must ask them all. Even if you’ve known them since forever.

So what is Mills going to do about it?

Not much for now – at least until she sees something more substantive than a press release.

“I’m not going to take court action against a press release,” Mills said. “If that were the case, I’d be in court all the time.”

According to DHHS spokesman John Martins, the department needs no change in state law or department rules to crack down on “illegals.” Federal law already prohibits states from giving benefits to undocumented applicants unless the states pass legislation explicitly making those people eligible, he notes, and Maine law is silent on the issue.

But what about all those local clerks and welfare directors who now must add “immigration cop” to their job descriptions?

“The Department will continue to assist municipalities in verifying immigration status for municipalities,” Martin wrote in an email Thursday. “(General Assistance) administrators will continue to ask an applicant if they are a citizen, and if they indicate they are not, the applicant will be asked about their immigration status.”

Or not.

Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association, spent Thursday morning huddling with his colleagues to determine how the association’s 486 member communities might best respond to the DHHS directive.

“Our advice, I think, will be to essentially ignore the department,” Herman said.

That said, the municipalities will still find themselves in what Herman called “quite a little box”:

They can ignore the DHHS, see their General Assistance reimbursements (50 percent or 90 percent, depending on the number of people seeking help) docked and then appeal to have the funds released.

Or they can follow DHHS orders and wait for the inevitable lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project or some other organization dedicated to helping newcomers to this country find a foothold.

Added Herman, “Those (immigrant) challenges will likely be successful.”

No argument there from Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine.

“I think the towns and cities should refuse to play ball with this, refuse to participate,” Heiden said in an interview Thursday.

In addition to the equal protection concerns, Heiden said, the DHHS order is simply bad policy that will further strain the social safety net in places like Portland, where an estimated 800 people would be flushed out of their General Assistance-funded apartments and onto the street.

Speaking of numbers, what makes this DHHS move so transparently political is the admission by spokesman Martins that it will likely affect 1,000 people statewide and save the state a paltry $1 million a year in General Assistance reimbursements.

What’s worse, as Portland Mayor Michael Brennan notes, it achieves nothing.

“People don’t evaporate,” Brennan said Thursday as he awaited his DHHS marching orders. “Just because (the DHHS makes) a declaration about General Assistance, it doesn’t mean people don’t exist anymore.”

That sentiment will be reflected on Monday when Brennan, coincidentally, asks the Portland City Council to join 40 cities and towns across the United States that have adopted the Charter for Compassion. It’s a burgeoning worldwide movement that advocates putting ourselves in others’ shoes, not telling them to take a hike.

“Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures,” the charter says. “To dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

We are all Spartacus.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com