Lydia Montana and Tanesha Galante both benefited from public assistance, and the experience influenced the way they think about whether undocumented immigrants should be eligible to receive it.

But they don’t think the same way.

“There are just way too many people getting everything,” said Galante, 21, of Westbrook, who has lived in homeless shelters for most of her life.

Montana, 47, of Portland, who depended on General Assistance as a teenager to survive, said, “I don’t like the idea of people going without food and clothing because of (Gov. Paul) LePage’s little war on welfare.”

General Assistance is emergency financial support for people who can’t pay for rent, utilities and other basic expenses. It’s distributed by cities and towns and partially funded by the state.

The LePage administration issued a memo this week telling cities and towns that the Department of Health and Human Services will no longer reimburse them for General Assistance to undocumented immigrants – a policy change it says complies with federal law.


The state’s attorney general disagrees, saying it would make town clerks de facto immigration officers, and that any such change should first go through the state Legislature.

Officials in Portland, South Portland and other cities said this week that they will defy the LePage administration and continue offering General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, setting the stage for a possible legal showdown.

The administration has said the new restriction will cut off support to about 1,000 people, save the state more than $1 million a year and effectively preserve the state’s scarce resources for “the people of Maine and this country, particularly the elderly and disabled.”

Undocumented immigrants include foreigners who sneak into the country, and those who are permitted to enter but stay in the country after their temporary visas expire. Many with expired visas seek political asylum so they can stay legally rather than return to countries torn by violence.

While state and municipal officials grapple with the LePage administration’s directive, many residents in the Portland area have strong opinions about assistance for undocumented immigrants. And those opinions vary widely.

Kurt Kish, 57, a Democrat, said he’s not inclined “to give credence to conservatives,” but in this case he agrees with LePage.


“I think illegal immigrants are illegal,” he said. “I don’t want to be an enabler.”

Scot Hudson, 38, of Falmouth doesn’t see what immigration status has to do with General Assistance, which he called “the emergency room of society.”

If undocumented immigrants who need help can’t get it, he said, “what’s the alternative?”

Several people said that giving assistance to undocumented immigrants takes away from U.S. citizens who need help.

“Help our own first,” said Jenna Howard, 32, of Gorham. “Maybe that sounds cold and unkind, but we all have to work our butts off to get what we want. They should, too.”

Emma Holder, president of Portland’s Parkside Neighborhood Association, said many immigrants she knows are working hard to get documentation so they can get jobs.


“They want so desperately to be helpful,” she said. “They don’t want to be sitting around just sponging.”

It’s much more likely that those newcomers will become influential members of the community, she said, “if they keep GA.”

Some of the people who oppose assisting undocumented immigrants, like Sam Smith, 30, of Portland, said they would make an exception for asylum seekers – if they’ve “started the wheels turning” on the asylum application process.

But Chris Torlone, 20, of Portland doesn’t differentiate.

“Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I really do think that everyone does have a right to that kind of help,” she said. “They’re still a human being. You don’t need a document to be a human being.”

According to the administration’s directive, some cities, including Portland and South Portland, will shift the cost to their taxpayers if they keep giving General Assistance to undocumented immigrants.


The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t support that, said Chief Executive Officer Chris Hall.

Phil Caufield, 73, of Portland also thinks that wouldn’t be right.

“I think the city’s going to bankrupt themselves. You’re going to have to take out of other programs for people who shouldn’t be here in the first place,” he said.

It’s unclear what will happen to undocumented immigrants if municipalities do cut them off from General Assistance.

Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton said, “We have questions flooding in from landlords (who have tenants receiving rent vouchers). Everyone’s nervous.”

She said that Westbrook, where 52 asylum seekers are on General Assistance, has “more questions than answers right now.”

It hasn’t changed anything about how it doles out assistance, yet. “I think if people appear in Westbrook in our General Assistance office that have explored all other options, we’re going to help them,” she said.

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