The Portland City Council voted 7-2 Monday night to enact new eligibility guidelines for hundreds of asylum-seeking immigrants who once again will be supported with state General Assistance funds.

Questions remain about how a new state law will be implemented and how long it will last. City staff recommended conservative guidelines, but councilors ultimately agreed with advocates who asked the council to expand its General Assistance program to include other types of visa holders beside asylum seekers.

“I’m persuaded the definition needs to be broader than just the asylum seeker,” City Councilor David Brenerman said. “To me, the state won’t accept this narrow definition that staff came up with any more than they would the broader definition.”

Councilors Nicholas Mavodones and Edward Suslovic were opposed, and Councilor Jill Duson was absent.

The LePage administration cut off the state aid for asylum-seeking immigrants, forcing Portland to pay for the rental, food and heating assistance without state help.

Now, the state money is expected to flow to Portland and other cities because the Legislature passed a bill making them eligible and Gov. Paul LePage failed to issue a veto before his deadline.

As of Monday, the state had not offered guidance to municipalities about how it is interpreting the new law, which took effect Thursday, making another confrontation over reimbursements likely between municipalities and the state. Last year, the state withheld roughly $5 million from Portland alone.

“We should not be limited to the narrow-mindedness of what we think the administration’s rule-making will be,” said Kathy Kilrain del Rio of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

In addition to the lack of clarity from the state, the Maine Republican Party is collecting signatures for a statewide referendum that would rescind the new law.

Public Law 324, passed by the Legislature, extends eligibility to “a person who is lawfully present in the United States or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.”

City staff recommended a set of definitions that were narrower than those suggested by immigration advocates, such as the Maine Equal Justice Partners, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Maine Women’s Lobby and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which sought to include more visa types and a lower threshold for proving that someone was pursuing a lawful process.

Advocates applauded the council for its leadership on the issue by creating a local assistance program and urged the city to lead again in complying with the new law. They argued that the city staff’s definition left out people who are lawfully present in the U.S., including victims of domestic violence, which could open up the city to a legal challenge.

“Excluding them is not in your discretion,” MEJEP policy analyst Joby Thoyalil said. “We strongly urge you to reconsider this amendment and adopt one that defines GA eligibility in a way that complies with the new state law and that is more likely to withstand legal challenges.”

City staff recommended that “lawfully present” should include only those who have applied for asylum, are parents, guardians or siblings of an American-born minor or an unaccompanied minor – a federal designation for children who crossed the border without a legal guardian. And seeking a lawful process should include only those who have applied for asylum and those who have not applied for asylum, but have been in the U.S. for less than one year.

The assistance would only be for 24 months, as required by state law.

The city’s top lawyer, Danielle West-Chuhta said she expects the city’s definition would be challenged in court by the administration and the city would likely have to go to court to get its reimbursement.

Backing up immigration advocates, Rep. Peter Stuckey said the intention of the Legislature was “to be as broad as possible and as inclusive as possible.” The costs of doing any less would be too great, he said.

“People need to be part of a community and we need to act as (a) community to support everybody here,” Stuckey said. “It’s not rocket science.”

The battle over providing GA to asylum seekers goes back nearly two years. LePage’s first attempt to eliminate eligibility was deemed unconstitutional by the Attorney General’s Office. The administration then withheld reimbursements under federal law, and that was upheld by a court.

The Maine Legislature passed a law making asylum seekers eligible in May, but it lacked the support needed to override a nearly certain veto, but the governor accidentally let the bill become law.

When it appeared likely that asylum-seeking immigrants would be cut from the state program permanently, the city created the Portland Community Support Fund to help the roughly 900 immigrants.

The fund was capitalized with $2.6 million, including $1.7 million in additional state education funding. Though many people told they council they would donate to the fund, only $824 has been raised so far.

To date, the city has spent $367,000 on asylum-seeking immigrants. It has continued to provide a full range of assistance, even though funding would fall far short of what is needed, because it expects to receive 70 percent reimbursement from the state.