Maine’s political leaders were reluctant Wednesday to take a strong stand on whether undocumented immigrants should remain eligible for General Assistance in Maine.

However, the two men who are trying to unseat Gov. Paul LePage used the issue to criticize the administration’s directive that cities and towns immediately stop giving state-funded assistance to those immigrants.

The LePage administration cites federal welfare law as its legal basis for the policy change, arguing that state and local funds should not be used for General Assistance for undocumented immigrants unless the state passes a law making that population eligible.

Portland, South Portland and other cities say they will defy the directive because state law refers only to financial need and such a policy change should be made through the Legislature.

A spokeswoman for LePage did not respond to a request Wednesday for a statement from the governor. But Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew spoke for the administration in a recent statement defending the policy.

“The LePage administration remains committed to protecting our scarce resource for the people of Maine and this country, particularly the elderly and disabled,” she said.

LePage’s two major opponents in this year’s election criticized the policy Wednesday but stopped short of arguing that all undocumented immigrants should continue to receive aid.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud did not directly answer the question of whether undocumented immigrants should be eligible for General Assistance. However, he criticized LePage for “over-simplifying a complex matter” and supported the position staked out by Portland and other cities.

Michaud said in a written statement that “undocumented immigrants” are not only those who are in the country illegally, but also victims of sex trafficking, refugees and people seeking political asylum.

“It is perfectly valid to have a discussion about who receives General Assistance – but that needs to be a realistic and substantive discussion that acknowledges the differing circumstances that lead immigrants to Maine,” Michaud said. “And the Governor’s position puts municipalities in an untenable position: They do not have the resources to scour their local communities to determine everyone’s immigration status. With that in mind, I do not believe they should have to choose between providing financial services to those living in their communities, and facing financial repercussions from the state for doing so.”

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, citing his immigrant grandfather who was helped by his community when he arrived as a penniless 12-year-old, said undocumented immigrants should receive aid “in some cases.”

“I certainly believe that asylum seekers whose applications are still pending should continue to be provided temporary, emergency aid for housing, food and heat,” Cutler said in a written statement. “It’s also very important for our state rules to be reconciled with the federal rules. The Democratic attorney general and the Republican governor ought to stop fighting and work together to craft a solution created through negotiation, public input, and legal review.”

The other members of Maine’s congressional delegation also weighed in on the issue but did not say that undocumented immigrants should or should not be given aid.

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree did not directly answer the eligibility question but echoed concerns raised by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and others about adding an administrative burden on town clerks who will have to be trained to screen applicants based on immigration questions.

“I’ll leave the legal analysis to the Attorney General, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that General Assistance is only temporary and goes to families in desperate situations,” Pingree said in a prepared statement. “I don’t think we should ask town clerks to become immigration officers in these emergency situations.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King, who served for eight years as Maine’s governor, largely sidestepped the eligibility question and said the issue is one for the state to decide.

“As a general rule, under federal law individuals who are not legally in the United States are not entitled to federal benefits,” Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley said in an email. “Whether or not the State of Maine or local communities choose to provide benefits to these individuals is a matter for the State and local governments to decide.”

King’s spokesman, Scott Ogden, said in an email, “General assistance is a matter of state and local jurisdiction, and Sen. King hopes that state and local officials will be able to work together to find a solution that will be beneficial to Maine’s immigrant population, local towns, and the state as a whole.”

Staff Writers Kevin Miller, Randy Billings, Eric Russell and Matt Byrne contributed to this report.