Portland city councilors unanimously adopted eligibility rules Monday evening for a new public assistance program to help hundreds of asylum seekers who live in the city and have been cut off from state funds for housing and other basic needs.

The new city program will focus on helping the immigrants pay for housing over the next 11 months. City officials are trying to get nonprofits and the business community to help address other needs that used to be met by General Assistance, a state-funded aid program.

“We have to do the best we can do within the budget we set to assist those who are seeking asylum,” said Councilor David Brennerman, before the 9-0 vote. “With this vote tonight I think we’re deciding that housing is the most important service we can provide to asylum seekers and the community will step forward to provide folks with food and medicine. There’s certainly more resources to help people with food and medicine than for housing.”

The new rules also require that asylum seekers seek a work permit within 60 days of becoming eligible to do so, and to get a job within six months of receiving the permit.

Last year, Portland spent an estimated $5 million on aid for asylum seekers that was not reimbursed by the state after Gov. Paul LePage declared such noncitizens ineligible. A lawsuit filed by Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association failed to overturn the state policy, and legislation that would force the state to resume aid for asylum seekers is stalled in a legal dispute between the LePage administration and the Legislature.

With the future of state aid unresolved, the City Council has established a one-time, $2.6 million fund to continue providing some assistance to about 564 asylum seekers for the current fiscal year. The fund is expected to fall $1.5 million short of meeting the need, so city staff is recommending that the program focus on housing.

Portland’s asylum seekers typically arrived in the city with temporary visas before asking for asylum because of the potential for violence or persecution if they returned home. They are considered lawfully present in the U.S. while awaiting an asylum decision, but are not eligible for most forms of federal or state aid and are not allowed to apply for work permits for 150 days after applying for asylum.

Portland councilors approved staff-recommended rules for the aid program that exclude immigrants who are no longer eligible to apply for asylum because they have been in the U.S. more than a year.

The city staff recommended a rule requiring 146 asylum seekers who are eligible for federal work permits, but haven’t applied, to do so within 60 days to remain eligible for assistance.

Portland’s struggle to provide aid was cited last week by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, when he announced a proposal to reduce the period of time asylum seekers must wait before applying for work permits.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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