The Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook filed suit against the LePage administration Thursday in an effort to nullify new Department of Health and Human Services policies denying state-funded General Assistance to undocumented immigrants.

The lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, asks the court to find that DHHS failed to follow the proper rule-making process last month when it instructed municipalities to stop providing assistance to non-citizens who were “not lawfully present” – a phrase that applies to asylum seekers and immigrants with expired visas.

The two cities and the Maine Municipal Association are asking for an expedited hearing as they try to block DHHS from enforcing a controversial policy that the LePage administration insists is required under a 1996 federal welfare reform law. The Maine attorney general has openly disputed the administration’s legal interpretation.

“MMA wishes to stress that the lack of process is the central legal issue here, along with the fact that conflicting opinions among DHHS, the Governor’s Office and Attorney General (Janet Mills) have put municipal General Assistance officials in an untenable position,” the association said in a statement announcing the filing. “If they decline to follow the June 13 DHHS directive, state funds will be withheld. If they abide by the directive, and decline to provide local assistance, lawsuits against municipalities are fairly likely – and local taxpayers could bear the financial consequences.”

General Assistance is temporary, emergency aid intended to help recipients cover basic needs such as housing, food and heat. Municipalities administer the program but are reimbursed by the state for 50 percent to 90 percent of the costs.

DHHS sent a letter to municipalities in June saying it would no longer reimburse towns and cities for General Assistance given to undocumented immigrants, which include people living in Maine with expired visas while their applications for asylum are pending. Gov. Paul LePage then upped the ante by vowing to withhold all General Assistance money to communities that ignore the policy.

But several municipalities – including Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Bangor – have said they will continue to offer assistance to undocumented immigrants. Those communities were buoyed by statements from Mills, the attorney general – a Democrat – that DHHS lacks the authority to change the General Assistance eligibility standards without going through a rule-making process that requires public input and a review by her office.

Portland allocated more than $9.8 million in General Assistance last year and was reimbursed $7.4 million by the state. Roughly 20 percent of that figure went to asylum applicants who are ineligible for federal assistance.

Asked for comment on the lawsuit, DHHS spokesman John Martins reiterated a previous LePage administration statement on the issue.

“As we have said from the beginning, federal law doesn’t allow state reimbursement for illegal immigrants and we are simply enforcing federal law,” Martins wrote. “We believe this is a common sense measure to ensure that state funds are going to help U.S. citizens or those people who are in Maine with documented status.”

Portland and Westbrook announced this week that they would join MMA – which provides policy and legal advice to Maine communities – in suing to block the policy. The lawsuit contends the policy will put financial and administrative burdens on communities now required to confirm an applicant’s immigration status within 24 hours. Also, the lawsuit says the current Municipal General Assistance Act and related policy manual do not address an applicant’s immigration status.

“The injury to the petitioners and municipalities in the form of lost entitlement to reimbursements would be irreparable,” the court appeal reads.

The petitioners also asked for an “immediate conference with the court” after DHHS responds to the suit.

“We hope that the court can take up this motion quickly so we can get the clarification that we are looking for,” Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said Thursday afternoon.