PORTLAND — City officials have joined their counterparts in Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association in asking a Superior Court justice to stay a state order prohibiting general assistance to undocumented immigrants.

On Monday, South Portland city councilors signalled in a workshop that their city will not join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff. But the city will continue to provide general assistance to qualified applicants, regardless of their immigration status.

In their Monday, July 21 meeting, the South Portland councilors are expected to compose an order supporting the city’s existing general assistance policy.

“(It) also seems pretty clear council is prepared to continue on with general assistance as we’ve been doing for many years,” South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert said Monday.

The complaint filed July 10 in Cumberland County is in response to a new state Department of Health and Human Services prohibition on general assistance to illegal immigrants, and a threat to withhold all state general assistance reimbursements to municipalities that violate the new policy.

The complaint argues the new policy violates the state and federal constitutions as well as DHHS rules and state procedures, and is “unsupported by substantial evidence on the whole record; and arbitrary or capricious, or characterized by abuse of discretion.”

While not naming Gov. Paul LePage as a defendant, the suit points to his June 20 letter to town administrators, which said “If DHHS finds that a municipality fails to comply with the law, it will cut off all General Assistance reimbursement to that community.”

The policy and possible elimination of all funding is also opposed by state Attorney General Janet Mills.

“If you ask one person for his or her immigration status, you have to ask everyone for that information. Yet people who seek General Assistance – the person fleeing domestic violence, the victim of human trafficking, the asylum seeker awaiting federal approval, the family who lost their home to fire or to war – are least likely to have this paperwork on hand during a crisis,” Mills said in June 24 statement.

Immigrants not granted refugee or asylum status are not eligible for federally funded assistance benefits, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Medicaid, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In his letter to town administrators, LePage cited a 1996 federal law making it illegal for states to provide general assistance aid to illegal immigrants. He further argued the normal state rule-making procedures, including public hearings, would not be needed to enforce the policy.

“Confident with its legal standing and given the Attorney General’s intransigence, DHHS provided guidance based on the federal prohibition,” LePage said.

The plaintiffs have also asked the court to send the policy back to the DHHS and require the department to follow the standard procedure outlined in the Maine Administrative Procedure Act.

DHHS spokesman John Martins on Tuesday said the department stands by its policy and the possible consequences for violations.

“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,” he said in an email.

Previously a staple of local governments, which provided last-resort care for indigent residents, general assistance programs were incorporated by the state about 40 years ago. The Department of Health and Human Services reimburses most municipal general assistance programs for 50 percent of their costs.

Portland City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin on Tuesday said the city rate of reimbursement is 75 percent. Court records indicate the city anticipates about $8 million in reimbursements for the fiscal year that began July 1. The current city budget allocates $9.23 million in general assistance spending. Westbrook and South Portland are reimbursed for 50 percent of general assistance aid.

General assistance programs are designed to provide “immediate aid to individuals who meet eligibility requirements and are unable to provide basic necessities essential to maintain themselves or their family,” according to information prepared by General Assistance Administrator Robert Duranleau on the Portland city website.

Municipal general assistance programs are operated with vouchers to pay for rent, food, medications and utilities, and capped at 30 days of assistance. Able-bodied recipients are required to work.

“Work assignments may include performing basic tasks at the Barron Center, City Shelters or other City locations,” according to the city.

In Portland, Westbrook and South Portland, rent and housing assistance comprises the largest share of general assistance spending. In fiscal year 2013 in Portland, more than $5 million of the $9 million in general assistance spending went to housing.

In South Portland, of the $245,000 currently allocated for general assistance, $190,000 is expected to go to housing. In Westbrook, $360,000 of the $477,000 allocated this year for general assistance will go for housing.

To ensure illegal immigrants are not receiving general assistance, DHHS will require administrators to verify the status of applicants, including immigration status that may not have been previously checked.

Applicants with pending asylum or refugee status, expired visas, or no documentation will not be eligible for general assistance, and municipalities are now required to list the number of non-citizens receiving general assistance on monthly reimbursement forms.

The plaintiffs argue the new requirements will also be more costly to local programs, and could cause applicants to be rejected because some information is not immediately available when they are seeking aid. The denial of all aid for giving aid to illegal immigrants also violates established DHHS rules, they argue.

In her June 11 press release announcing the new policy, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew estimated the change would affect about 1,000 people, while saving the state $1 million annually.

On July 11, Martins said those estimates were based on information on the city’s database and likely under-counted the total number of people affected, because it did not add figures for other cities, including Lewiston.

Grondin said the number of people affected in Portland is about 600. A  memo by South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey to South Portland councilors said nine general assistance recipients dating to December 2013 did not provide documentation to show legal status.

“This does not necessarily mean they are unlawful,” Gailey said. “They have Maine ID cards, some with (Social Security numbers). We have flagged these cases and will continue to follow up to learn more of each individual case.”

Staff writer Shelby Carignan contributed to this report. David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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