Portland’s new $2.6 million aid program to help asylum-seeking immigrants pay for housing and other basic needs might need another $1.5 million to cover all those costs over the next 11 months, according to an analysis by city staff.

The city is seeking support from the community to help fill the need for services that are no longer paid for by the state. And it may focus the $2.6 million allocated for the program solely on housing needs to prevent families from becoming homeless.

City councilors created the Portland Community Support Fund last month for immigrants who have been denied state aid and no longer receive General Assistance because their visas have expired. The program is not open to new arrivals and is only for those already receiving aid. City staff has been working to develop eligibility requirements and other facets of the program, even as legal wrangling continues about whether the state is obligated to provide aid to the immigrants.

On Friday, the city released further program details that will be discussed at a City Council workshop Monday. It will be up to the council to adopt a final set of rules, which it is expected to do at its Aug. 3 meeting.

According to new figures released by city officials, the Portland Community Support Fund is projected to fall $1.5 million short of the roughly $4.1 million needed to continue providing a full range of services to asylum-seeking immigrants, who are prohibited under federal law from working for at least six months after applying to stay in the country permanently.

SEEKING COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Typically, immigrants seeking asylum come to the United States on visitor visas, which are valid for six months, or student visas, which vary. Once here, they have one year to apply for asylum if they have a valid fear that they would face political persecution or violence if they returned home. Asylum seekers, who often are highly educated professionals, face a long and complicated legal process that could take years to complete.

Asylum applicants are considered legal residents even if their visas have expired, but they are not allowed to work for at least six months, and often much longer.

The staff projections are based on several assumptions. They assume that all of the immigrants who are eligible for asylum will actually apply and that none of them will leave the program within the next 12 months either because they are able to get jobs or because they are granted asylum. City staff believes there are 76 households, representing 123 individuals, who have not formally applied for asylum, but are within the one-year window that makes them eligible to do so.

Meanwhile, staff estimates – at least preliminarily – that there are 114 households, representing 170 documented immigrants with active visas, who are now receiving state General Assistance, but could become eligible for the city program within the next year.

City Manager Jon Jennings said staff is recommending the city focus on providing full housing subsidies to more than 500 immigrants who have been deemed eligible for the program, because housing accounts for nearly 70 percent of all assistance provided.

But that housing assistance alone could exceed the program budget by $300,000. Meanwhile, there is also projected to be more than $1 million in other unmet needs, including $920,000 for food, $108,000 for medicine and $96,000 for utilities.

“There is only so much the city can do,” Jennings said. “The urgency for the city with the Community Support Fund is to seek community support to fill the gap.”

Staff is recommending the creation of a 10-member Community Advisory Committee to focus on intensive case management, employment opportunities, health care, housing and charitable giving.

LEPAGE CHALLENGES LAW

There are currently 779 immigrants who have been deemed ineligible for the state’s General Assistance program, which last year under the orders of Gov. Paul LePage stopped reimbursing communities for aid provided to undocumented immigrants. The city, along with the Maine Municipal Association and Westbrook, challenged the decree in court.

In June, a Superior Court judge issued a mixed ruling, saying the administration could withhold funding because the Legislature had not passed a bill explicitly allowing the assistance, as required by federal law; it also ruled that LePage should have followed proper rule-making procedures.

City staff says there are 564 immigrants who have provided proof of their asylum applications. Staff previously estimated that 86 individuals had been receiving assistance on expired visas and had not applied for asylum within the one-year window allowed by federal law, so they would be denied assistance under the new program. The city now says that number has been reduced to 67 individuals, including six children, because some have since provided proof that they have applied for asylum.

Staff is recommending that 13 parents and siblings of 12 U.S.-born children eligible for state General Assistance be included in the city program.

Staff is also recommending that the city adopt eligibility requirements established consistent with Public Law 324, which includes people seeking a permanent legal status other than asylum, and the state’s General Assistance program. Doing so would allow the city to collect a reimbursement from the state, should the law fully take effect.

Public Law 324, or L.D. 369, specifically allows an immigrant seeking a lawful process to remain in the United States to receive state General Assistance. The bill became law after LePage failed to veto it within 10 days. The governor is challenging the validity of that law, among dozens of others, in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and a group of lawmakers and conservative activists has taken out papers for a people’s veto, which has temporarily put the law on hold.

Community groups and faith leaders have been meeting to figure out a way to help those immigrants who have been deemed ineligible for the Portland Community Support Fund and meet the outstanding needs. Nothing formal has been announced.

LePage also has vowed to challenge Portland’s use of education funds for the program, calling it “a shell game with taxpayers’ money.”