A 2015 law limiting public assistance to some immigrants in Maine took effect Saturday, and a small group of recipients in Portland and other cities are among the first to be cut off from the aid.

People who have come to the U.S. and sought asylum from persecution in their home countries have in many cases received General Assistance in Maine to pay for rent and other needs, usually transitioning off the aid as they obtain work permits and learn English. Two years ago, the Maine Legislature passed a law that limits immigrants who are seeking asylum to 24 months of the assistance, which is paid for with a combination of state and local funding.

The 24-month limit took effect Saturday, and the first asylum seekers to reach that cap are no longer eligible for housing vouchers and other support under the program. The number of people affected July 1 is small – single digits or even zero for some cities – although more will reach their limit in the months ahead.

The change is a result of years of political disagreements about providing state-funded assistance to immigrants, something Gov. Paul LePage has opposed and officials in Portland and other cities have fought to preserve.

General Assistance administrators in Greater Portland said they have been warning people about this cutoff since 2015, and they have tried to help those clients secure work or other services so they won’t be in need. Those without income will likely need to turn to charity for help.

“We would point them toward the already overstressed nonprofits and soup kitchens and churches,” said Joby Thoyalil, a policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners. “I don’t know what those folks would do for other basic needs.”

Assessing the immediate impact

Days before the deadline, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services didn’t know how many people were going to be affected July 1. About 1,000 immigrants who are seeking asylum receive state-funded assistance in Maine, according to the state. The vast majority stop applying for aid well before the 24-month limit.

Most of the people seeking asylum arrived legally with temporary visas and then applied for permission to stay. Asylum seekers cannot apply for a work permit until at least five months after applying for asylum, so vouchers for food and shelter are usually necessary in the interim.

Portland officials said they expected at least 11 current recipients to lose General Assistance on July 1. The names of General Assistance recipients are confidential and the Portland Press Herald was not able to interview any of those immediately affected.

Of those 11 people, the city said six are waiting for work permits that should arrive within weeks. One will begin receiving disability benefits, and another was receiving only a small amount of assistance because her husband receives disability payments. And in one family, a mother has refused to allow her 18- and 20-year-old sons to accept employment, according to the city, although it was not clear why.

As many as 107 Portland households – 169 individuals – will be cut off from General Assistance in the next 12 months if they continue to receive benefits through that time.

Dawn Stiles, health and human services director in Portland, said the city started a job training program specifically in response to the 2015 law establishing the 24-month cap.

“All of those individuals who were targeted to lose their General Assistance in July, they have been focused on closely,” Stiles said.

In Westbrook, General Assistance Administrator Harrison Deah said he knows of at least two clients who had hit their cap before July 1. Throughout the next 12 months, a total of 24 Westbrook families – 89 individuals – will become ineligible for General Assistance if they continue to seek aid.

Those families currently receive a combined $22,726 each month. That adds up to $272,712 in a year, although Deah said it is unlikely the city would spend the full amount in the coming year even if the cap did not exist. Asylum seekers often find jobs once they obtain their work permits and no longer need the same amount or any General Assistance.

Westbrook administered a total of $750,359 in General Assistance last year, nearly three times the amount given to those 24 families.

Deah said he is not sure what to tell clients who are anxious about the cutoff.

“To be honest, we don’t know what to say,” Deah said. “It’s tough.”

Keeping track among cities

Officials in South Portland and Lewiston have said they do not expect anyone to reach the 24-month cap in the coming year. Most asylum seekers in those communities secure their work permits and no longer need assistance by the 24-month deadline, officials said.

The 24-month limit has created a legal challenge because towns do not know if their recipients have previously received aid in other communities.

Last week, the state was still compiling a list of asylum seekers who have lived in and received General Assistance from multiple communities over the past two years. Bethany Hamm, director of the Office for Family Independence, said she was still waiting on information from major cities such as Portland, Auburn and Lewiston.

“If an asylum seeker seeks General Assistance in Lewiston and then seeks it in Portland, there is no streamlined way to be able to count the months across the state,” Hamm said. “We will make and disseminate that list.”

Hamm said the state will begin checking compliance with the new law in August as part of its regular audits of local General Assistance programs. A violation could result in the loss of state funding for General Assistance.

Court case and compliance

Portland and other cities have clashed with LePage’s administration in recent years over providing benefits to asylum seekers. The governor has maintained that the aid should be reserved for citizens, while the cities argued that state law did not list immigration status as a basis for denying assistance.

A Superior Court ruling in June 2015 supported the administration’s refusal to reimburse Portland for General Assistance benefits provided to asylum seekers, noting that Maine did not have a state law explicitly making that group eligible for public benefits. That decision cost Portland $3 million.

Later that year, the Legislature 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.” That law also created the 24-month limit that took effect Saturday.

Local General Assistance administrators did not express any plans to break that rule and jeopardize their state funding.

“We would rather the Legislature fix this,” said Deah, the administrator in Westbrook.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle