Portland officials estimate that more than 100 asylum seekers may be cut off from the state’s General Assistance program after July 1 and question whether the city can step in to help without violating federal law.

Immigrants who have come to the United States legally to seek asylum from persecution have long received General Assistance in Portland. But it wasn’t until 2015 that assistance was solidified in Maine law. However, under the new law, asylum seekers can only receive benefits for 24 months. That means some asylum seekers will become ineligible for state assistance during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Portland officials say that as many as 180 asylum seekers could lose aid over the coming year.

Leopold Ndayisabye said cutting off asylum seekers from the statewide vouchers for food and shelter would be a “catastrophe” that would put families with children onto the streets. Ndayisabye fled Rwanda in 2011 in fear for his life after being persecuted and tortured, leaving his wife and kids behind. He relied on General Assistance for about eight months to meet his basic needs for food and shelter, while he went through the long and complicated asylum process.

Since being granted asylum, the 47-year-old has been reunited with his family, earned his master’s degree, and has been working for the last five years as a caseworker at Preble Street, a Portland nonprofit that operates a soup kitchen and day shelter for the homeless.

“The amount (of) GA spent on me, people should not see that as wasting money … it’s an investment,” Ndayisabye said, estimating he received $8,000 in assistance. “Now, I’m just like every other citizen in this country. I pay my taxes. I rent my apartment. And I’m so happy to be a part of this economy and social life in Maine, especially Portland, where I work.”

Of the 265 people who were receiving aid when the law took effect on July 1, 2015, only 85 have been able to find work and no longer need help. Early estimates indicate that it would cost nearly $950,000 in local tax dollars next year to continue providing that assistance.

“I am concerned about it,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said. “This is a draconian law that should never have been put in place. These are our most vulnerable residents and we need to help them any way we can.”

The approaching deadline comes as the debate over immigration reaches a fever pitch in the United States, with President Trump continuing to pursue a travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority nations, despite several court decisions deeming it unconstitutional. Trump also continues to advocate for building a wall on the southern border and has threatened to de-fund so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to help federal immigration agents identify undocumented immigrants for deportation. Portland does not identify itself as a sanctuary city, which has no legal definition, but does have a city ordinance barring police from asking about immigration status.

Gov. Paul LePage, who has been critical of immigrants who receive assistance, recently renewed his attacks on Portland, saying in January that Maine’s largest city was “the leader of breaking the laws” on benefits for immigrants.

Lewiston also has a large immigrant population, but City Administrator Ed Barrett doesn’t believe anyone is in danger of hitting the 24-month limit this year, although they could in 2018. Barrett said that most of that city’s asylum cases receive benefits for nine months or less, while “fewer than a handful” have received General Assistance for 11 months.

“Our experience has been that the majority of clients in Lewiston apply for asylum almost immediately upon arrival and then get their work document and quickly secure employment,” he said.

As of February, Lewiston was providing General Assistance benefits to 119 asylum seekers, with only six clients having received assistance for 14 months and another six for 11 months.

Portland long has clashed with the LePage administration over providing General Assistance to asylum seekers. The dispute culminated in a Superior Court ruling in June 2015 that supported the administration’s refusal to reimburse Portland for General Assistance benefits provided to asylum seekers, since Maine did not have a state law explicitly making that group eligible for public benefits. That ruling cost Portland $3 million.

Later that year, however, the Legislature enacted a bill that expanded General Assistance eligibility to any asylum seeker or immigrant “lawfully present in the United States or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.” But it capped state-level benefits at 24 months.

LePage failed to veto the bill, as promised, and it became law. Now the governor is trying to eliminate the General Assistance program altogether as part of his proposed budget.

After the law took effect, the state Department of Health and Human Services developed rules that excluded some immigrants that advocates believed should have been eligible. Portland has continued to provide assistance using local property taxes to those roughly 90 people at an estimated cost of $250,000 in the current fiscal year. That cost could rise to $260,000 or more in the next budget, city officials have said.

Portland’s top attorney, Danielle West-Chuhta, is researching whether the city can continue to provide that aid to people termed out of the state General Assistance program and its locally funded program without violating federal law.

West-Chuhta said in an interview that she would likely draft a memo to the council before its April 5 budget presentation from City Manager Jon Jennings.

“We’re trying to figure out whether the city will have the legal authority to cover people who fall within this 24-month limit, even if the city wanted to,” Jennings said.

West-Chuhta said the federal statute seems to prevent certain groups, such as asylum seekers, from receiving “state and local public benefits,” unless a state law “affirmatively” provides that eligibility. She noted that the law passed by the Legislature in 2015 only expanded eligibility for help through General Assistance, which is a program funded through state and local resources and administered by municipalities.

“The state law does not seem to affirmatively provide for any other ‘local public benefits’ (i.e., General Assistance or any other separate locally established public benefits program) for those individuals beyond that period of time,” she said in an email. “Of course … this is something that I am still researching and reviewing in more detail at this time.”

Immigrant advocates, however, believe the city could continue to provide assistance using local money, since the 24-month limit only applies to the state General Assistance program.

Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of low-income Mainers and helped craft the 2015 bill, is following the issue closely, Executive Director Robyn Merrill said, noting that the federal law rarely has been enforced.

“We have talked to a fair amount of people who are very anxious about what this means when they hit that limit,” Merrill said. “I’d say Portland can continue to help people outside of the General Assistance program. We would hope the city would do that. Otherwise you would have over 100 people losing food and shelter.”

The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Portland nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants, shares that view, Executive Director Sue Roche said.

Federal law allows non-citizens to file for asylum within one year of entering the United States, regardless of how they arrived in the country. The vast majority of asylum seekers in Maine arrive in the U.S. on student, work or visitation visas that expire within six months, meaning they have six months to complete the long and complicated asylum application before facing deportation.

Federal law also prohibits asylum seekers from receiving legal work permits for at least six months after they apply. And many asylum seekers wait years for interviews with immigration officials because of a growing national backlog.

City officials say they are aware of only two people receiving General Assistance after July 1, 2015, who have been granted asylum in the last two years. However, Aaron Geyer, Portland’s General Assistance Program manager, said that the city has no way of knowing how many of the 85 people who got jobs and stopped receiving assistance were granted asylum, because they no longer report to the city.

City officials provided the Press Herald with a summary of the 180 people who could lose assistance at some point during the next fiscal year.

All but 23 of those people have federal authorization to work, the city said. Fifty of those people have not applied for benefits since Nov. 30.

However, 42 people are temporarily or permanently disabled, making it more difficult for them to find employment.

“They’re not in a position to be self-sufficient because of their disability,” said David MacLean, Portland’s social services director.

The city is currently helping 61 asylum seekers who have their federal work authorizations receive the education and training necessary to find employment through its HIRE, or Helping Individuals Regain Employment, program.

Launched in 2015, the HIRE program includes a caseworker dedicated to help non-citizen General Assistance applicants find resources needed for them to enter the workforce. Those deemed work-ready are referred to community organizations, such as Portland Adult Education, for English language and other classes. Those who are not are referred to other assistance programs.

City officials say 16 single parents with children who are too young to attend school also may lose assistance.

“I think we’re extremely concerned,” MacLean said. “We’re continually evaluating how many (people) we might be responsible for and the cost associated with those. Once we provide that information to the city manager and City Council, it’s really up to them to make the decision about what we will provide moving forward for a program.”

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

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