Portland and South Portland plan to defy the LePage administration and continue offering General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, the group at the center of Maine’s latest fight over welfare reform.

The Department of Health and Human Services formally notified cities and towns Monday evening that the state will no longer reimburse them for General Assistance to undocumented immigrants and will begin auditing municipalities in October. The memo went out five days after the DHHS announced the policy change in a media release.

In a sign of the discord ahead, officials from Portland, South Portland and Bangor said Tuesday that they will continue to offer emergency assistance to undocumented immigrants.

And the Maine Municipal Association, while not explicitly advising communities to defy the DHHS, called it “unfortunate” that the LePage administration did not follow the normal procedure for making such a major policy change.

Portland officials said they plan to maintain the status quo until they get more guidance from city councilors next month. In May, the city provided about $250,000 in General Assistance to 327 households – a total of 613 people – who could be affected by the new policy.

“The people who receive these benefits depend on them for housing and for food,” said City Manager Mark Rees. “And to take away those benefits without some discussion about the legality (of the change) or some transitional assistance seems unfair to this group.”

Kathleen Babeu, South Portland’s General Assistance program manager, said the city will continue providing aid to people in need regardless of their immigration status. Babeu said she had identified about a dozen people or households who would be affected by the policy change.

General Assistance is temporary, emergency aid intended to help individuals and families who show financial need pay for basics such as housing, food and heat. Cities and towns administer local programs and the state reimburses them for half to 90 percent of the costs.

Last week, the administration of Gov. Paul LePage – a Republican who has made welfare reform a focal point of his first term and his re-election campaign – announced that it planned to stop reimbursing municipalities for aid to people who are living in the U.S. illegally.

The DHHS said that cities and towns could continue providing General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, but with no state reimbursement.

STATE’S MEMO CITES FEDERAL LAW

The memo sent to municipal officials Monday cites a 1996 federal welfare-reform law in arguing that state and local money should not go to undocumented immigrants, including asylum seekers whose applications are still pending and immigrants with expired work visas.

“If an individual indicates they are not a citizen then the GA Administrator will need to ask what the immigration status is of that individual,” the memo says. “Should an individual indicate they are not lawfully present in the U.S., then that individual is not eligible for General Assistance.”

The administration’s interpretation of the federal law runs counter to that of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who has called on LePage to propose legislation rather than force policy changes via memorandums.

Mills has said that the administration’s previous proposals to limit General Assistance to immigrants were unconstitutional and an unfunded mandate on cities and towns.

On Tuesday, the Maine Municipal Association indicated that Mills’ office, not the DHHS, is the best agency “to clarify the dilemma.”

Christopher Lockwood, the association’s executive director, wrote in a memo to municipal officials that the dispute has left communities “in a box with no easy way out,” facing potential lawsuits for following the DHHS’ advice or loss of state reimbursements for defying it.

The “real issue,” Lockwood wrote, is that major policies are typically created through a process with public notice and input, legal review and formal enactment.

“None of that has happened in this case, which is unfortunate,” Lockwood wrote. “With the DHHS notification, municipalities are receiving two fundamentally competing directives or opinions from State Government and it is impossible for municipal administrators to comply simultaneously with both.”

SOME UPSET BY PORTLAND’S STANCE

Portland and Lewiston would take the largest financial hit under the new DHHS policy because they have the state’s largest populations of new immigrants.

While many of those immigrants have been resettled through the federal government’s refugee program, a growing number are seeking asylum from war or political persecution in central African nations. Many asylum seekers rely on General Assistance while awaiting federal work permits because they are barred from receiving federal assistance.

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett estimated that 150 people in his city could be affected by the new DHHS policy. He would not predict how Lewiston would respond before the City Council discussed the issue Tuesday evening.

“We hate to be in this position where we seem to be caught between competing forces that are saying very different things,” Barrett said. “This is a situation where there are certain liabilities associated with anything that we do.”

Bangor City Manager Catherine Conlow said her city gets far fewer General Assistance requests from undocumented immigrants than Portland or Lewiston, but Bangor plans to keep offering assistance to those who need it, regardless of their immigration status, unless state law is changed to say otherwise.

Portland’s stance is already angering some residents, as was evident Monday night when the City Council considered adopting an international resolution promoting “compassion.”

Mayor Michael Brennan said “our statement in support of compassion is more warranted than even a month ago.”

Portland resident Mark Riley responded that it’s not unreasonable to ask General Assistance applicants to prove their legal status, considering that he has to present identification when he boards an airplane or visits the Social Security office.

“I agree that we need to be compassionate, but we cannot be all things to all people,” Riley said. “And I draw the line at people that don’t follow our laws.”

But Shoshana Hoose, who teaches English language skills to immigrants at Portland Adult Education, urged the city to continue offering General Assistance to immigrants, who bring youth, energy and diverse skills to Maine.

“I urge you to pass the resolution and I also urge you to do whatever it takes – sue, protest – to stop the governor from the actions that he is apparently intent on,” Hoose said.