Portland and Westbrook will join the Maine Municipal Association in challenging the legality of Gov. Paul LePage’s directive to deny General Assistance payments to undocumented immigrants.

The municipal association had asked at least a few cities to partner as plaintiffs in a lawsuit it plans to file soon.

“Westbrook and Portland are the leading two and they may be the only two because we want to expedite this,” said MMA spokesman Eric Conrad.

The Westbrook City Council voted 4-1 Monday, with Councilor Gary Rairdon opposed, to authorize the city to join the lawsuit and be represented by Peter DeTroy of the law firm Norman Hanson & DeTroy.

Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said Tuesday that the City Council agreed during a closed-door session Monday to join the lawsuit, but delayed announcing the decision because attorneys were still working out the details.

“We are thankful that MMA wants to pursue this because, like them, we are seeking clarity on the rules and we want to know how we should proceed,” Grondin said. “We just want clarity on the law.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to municipalities in June saying it would no longer reimburse towns and cities for General Assistance given to undocumented immigrants, which include people with expired visas who are seeking asylum. LePage then upped the ante by vowing to withhold all General Assistance money to communities that ignore the policy change.

The department’s position has remained the same, spokesman John Martins said Tuesday.

“As we have said from the beginning, federal law doesn’t allow state reimbursement for illegal immigrants and we are simply enforcing federal law,” he said. “We believe this is a common-sense measure to ensure that state funds are going to help U.S. citizens or those people who are in Maine with documented status.”

Some cities, including Portland, South Portland, Bangor and Westbrook, said they would continue doling out the aid because of conflicting legal advice and the possibility they could face lawsuits for withholding the aid.

Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills has opposed the state’s directive, calling it unconstitutional and an unfunded mandate on towns and cities that don’t have the resources to verify citizenship. That leaves the question about who will defend the state in the suit. The Attorney General’s Office had no comment Tuesday because no suit has been filed, said spokesman Tim Feeley.

The conflicting legal interpretations leave communities in “an impossible situation,” the MMA’s Conrad said. “If municipalities provide assistance to illegal aliens, they are threatened by an administration that says it will withhold funds. If municipalities do not provide assistance, they may well face costly lawsuits which taxpayers ultimately will finance. We are hopeful that a court will tell our members what they should do, what the law requires, and that we will get an opinion fairly quickly.”

The MMA’s lawsuit will ask a judge to decide whether the LePage administration must first go through a rule-making process to make such a major policy change. The association also is hiring outside legal analysts to examine whether federal law does prohibit the use of state funds for the aid.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said Westbrook decided to join the lawsuit because of the risk the city could get sued and have to cover the costs. “The state’s not going to pay for it. They’re not going to defend us and they’re not going to bail us out,” he said.

Conrad said the MMA wanted cities to join the suit because it believes that “going to court with specific numbers and proven impacts is a good move.”

Portland has the most at stake, by far, in the LePage administration decision to deny General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, a group that includes a growing number of individuals who are seeking asylum in the U.S. because of persecution in their home nations.

Between July 1, 2013, and May 31, 2014, Portland distributed just shy of $3 million in General Assistance to more than 900 immigrants whose applications for asylum are still pending. Asylum seekers are ineligible to receive other federal assistance – such as food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF – and are prohibited from obtaining a federal work permit for at least 150 days after they apply for asylum.

Asylum seekers who have expired visas are protected from deportation while their applications are pending, but they would likely fall under the LePage administration’s policy of withholding aid for illegal immigrants.

In Westbrook, 24 households with 94 residents – 15 percent of the people in the city who got General Assistance in the fiscal year that ended in June – could have been denied $135,000 in aid under the state’s directive, said Mayor Colleen Hilton.

As of last month, at least 16 households with 52 people, including 31 children, would have been affected if the city complied with the state’s policy change, she said.

“GA has spent over $13,500 on their basic needs, which they are not able to meet on their own,” she said. “We have decided that the humane path to take in the short term is to continue to provide assistance to people in need until these complex issues can be resolved.”

It’s unclear if other cities will also join the suit. South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said the City Council will hold a workshop Monday to discuss the issue.