A federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit challenging the state’s directive to stop giving emergency assistance to undocumented immigrants should be tried in state court.

The LePage administration contends that Maine communities’ standing practice of providing General Assistance to undocumented immigrants – a group that includes people who come to the United States legally and then seek asylum – is at odds with federal law that limits aid to non-citizens.

The state has directed Maine cities and towns to stop providing assistance to such immigrants. The administration also has threatened to withhold all General Assistance reimbursements to communities that don’t check the immigration status of applicants.

General Assistance is an emergency program that uses state and municipal funds to pay for rent, heat or other necessities.

In response to the administration’s directive, the Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that the administration acted outside of the required ruling-making process.

The cities also want the court to settle conflicting legal interpretations by the administration and the attorney general, who ruled the proposed rule change is unconstitutional and that cities have no right to withhold aid to non-citizens. That conflict leaves municipalities with significant immigrant populations, such as Portland, Westbrook, South Portland and Lewiston, looking to the court for direction.

The administration sought to move the lawsuit from a state court to federal court, but its motion was denied Thursday. U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. said “the (federal) Court finds that it does not have jurisdiction in this case.”

While the case moves slowly toward a trial, Portland and other cities have continued to provide the aid to immigrants but have not asked the state to help pay for the portion given to undocumented immigrants.

Portland recently estimated that the policy change sought by the state and the loss of state funding for the aid could end up costing the city $3 million to $9 million a year. The city has frozen nonessential overtime and hiring, as well as delayed some projects, in case the state prevails.

Portland submitted its reimbursement request for the month of June in September. Maine Department and Health and Human Services spokesman David Sorensen said the state is still reviewing reimbursement requests from all municipalities, including Portland.

Gov. Paul LePage made welfare reform a priority in his first term and during his successful re-election campaign. He claims the state is prohibited from providing emergency assistance to “illegal aliens” under the federal welfare reform act of 1996. The reform act permits the state to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants only if the Legislature passes a law allowing it to do so. LePage says Maine hasn’t done that.

Opponents, however, have criticized LePage for classifying undocumented immigrants as “illegal,” because most of the people affected are asylum seekers who are lawfully present in the United States.

Many people seeking asylum come to the United States on valid visas and then apply for asylum because they fear for their safety if they return home. Once their application is filed, they must wait at least 150 days until they receive their work permits, so they rely on General Assistance to pay for food and housing until they can work.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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