The Portland City Council on Monday debated parallel efforts to expand benefits for different groups of asylum seeking immigrants until they are legally allowed to look for work.

In June, the council created a $2.6 million Portland Community Support Fund to provide aid to immigrants who had been receiving state General Assistance as of June 30 but whose benefits had been cut off by the state.

But city staff estimated last week that the fund will fall $1.5 million short of the $4.1 million needed to provide housing, food and other aid to this group. The council voted not to provide aid for any asylum seekers arriving in the city after June 30.

The city has considered providing only housing aid, but that would still leave the fund about $500,000 short, the staff estimates.

When the council created the fund last month, it anticipated seeking contributions to help pay for it. To date, without any formal fundraising campaign, the city has received only $400, said City Manager Jon Jennings.

But Mayor Michael Brennan has been involved in a separate effort to raise money for assistance to asylum seekers who arrive after June 30, and for another 67 immigrants deemed ineligible because they missed their deadline for applying for asylum. That effort has landed about $20,000 in pledges, Jennings said.

Several councilors said Brennan’s effort is drawing contributions away from the original fundraising effort. Jill Duson was among several councilors who called the mayor’s effort a “competing” campaign.

“I think we are going down a path of confusion,” Duson said.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said, “I don’t think, as a city, we should be leading a charge to compete against a fund that we created.”

Brennan, however, said the city could work with community partners to do both.

“I don’t in any way see those as competing proposals or resources being diverted from one population to another population,” Brennan said.

Councilor Jon Hinck supported the mayor, suggesting that some potential contributors might want to help new arrivals but not those already here.

The council voted to establish the Portland Community Support Fund as part of its $225 million municipal budget for fiscal year 2015-16. Staff was assigned to develop program guidelines and eligibility.

It follows a LePage administration decision to no longer provide General Assistance to asylum seekers whose visas have expired, because it considers them in the country illegally. That decision has been challenged in court.

Because of the projected shortfall, city staff is recommending that the city first pay for housing assistance, while working with private aid groups to address needs like food, utilities and medication.

Councilors are expected to hold a public hearing and vote Aug. 3 on possible changes to the aid program, including defining who is eligible.

The fund for asylum seekers currently covers 564 of the 779 immigrants who have been cut from state General Assistance rolls.

Staff wants to add 123 immigrants whose visas have expired but who still have time to apply for asylum within a year of arriving as required under federal law. It’s also suggesting adding 25 people in families with at least one child born in the U.S.

The staff estimates that as many as 170 immigrants with valid visas who are receiving state General Assistance could also become eligible for the city program once their visas expire.

Immigration advocates, such as the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Maine Equal Justice Partners, have been lobbying the city to adopt an eligibility definition that would go beyond asylum seekers to other immigrants seeking lawful status.

Doing so would better position the city to receive state reimbursement, if LePage loses his court battle.

“When we passed the ordinance in June creating the program from my perspective we used the word asylum seeker not fully understanding the nuances of that definition,” Brennan said. “We kind of used it as a general word to describe the status we thought they were in. There is more nuance to that definition.”

But city staff is recommending against this because it would essentially require staff to become immigration officers, evaluating more than 20 different immigration programs.

“We can only deal with the reality of our situation,” Jennings said, noting that state policies are still uncertain. “We have to define our program today to meet what the council passed.”

Portland has been at loggerheads with the LePage administration over aid to asylum seekers since LePage stopped reimbursing municipalities for GA payments to “undocumented immigrants.”

Portland, along with Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association, challenged the directive in court. In June, a Superior Court judge delivered a split ruling, saying LePage could continue to withhold the payments, but also should have followed proper rulemaking procedures. A clarification of that ruling is being sought by the association, including who would be responsible for determining immigration status.

During the last session, lawmakers passed a bill to make asylum seekers eligible for state aid and LePage failed to veto it within 10 days, making it law. However, LePage is challenging the law before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

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

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