Portland is providing emergency financial assistance to an unprecedented number of immigrants who have come to seek asylum, and the group now accounts for 63 percent of the city’s general assistance budget, according to data released by the city Monday.

More asylum seekers and visa holders who are expected to apply for asylum have received general assistance from the city in the first five months of the current fiscal year than in the entire previous fiscal year. The number receiving aid increased from 1,716 in all of fiscal 2014 to 1,899 in the first five months of fiscal 2015, which began July 1.

“Those are the highest numbers we’ve had,” said Robert Duranleau, the city’s social services director.

Meanwhile, the portion of the city’s general assistance funds used to help all other people pay for rent, food and other necessities has fallen sharply to 37 percent in the current fiscal year from 64 percent in 2014. The city gave aid to 2,594 people who were not asylum seekers or visa holders in fiscal year 2014, and to 927 in the first five months of fiscal 2015.

The new data comes as Gov. Paul LePage prepares to embark on a second term in the Blaine House, promising to make welfare reform a priority. He already has sought to prohibit asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants from receiving general assistance – a move that is being challenged in state court by Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association, a nonprofit representing towns and cities.

General assistance is an assistance program of last resort and the costs are shared by the communities and the state. Communities give the aid to families or individuals who provide financial records showing they do not have the income or savings to pay for basic needs. Most general assistance is provided in the form of rent vouchers to prevent people from being evicted.

Mayor Michael Brennan said the City Council will hold a workshop Monday to discuss the city’s assistance program, which has been operating within long-established policies and procedures. Changing the rules of the program without having the ongoing legal dispute resolved could expose the city to more liability, especially if assistance is denied to someone who is entitled to it, Brennan said.

“I think what needs to happen here is for the state to reimburse us – as they have – until the court case is decided,” Brennan said. “We hope the court case can be acted on quickly and resolve the issue very clearly.”

Sue Roche, the executive director for the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, maintains that the figures do not represent an overall increase in the number of immigrants coming to Portland.

Instead, the figures represent a logjam in the asylum application process that has prolonged the wait for work permits and resident status, as well as a tight labor market that is difficult to break into, especially if someone doesn’t speak English well, she said.

“When you see those numbers spike, it’s not necessarily new people who come, it’s the people who were in the process before and still in the process. And you have new people coming in as well,” said Roche, whose group helps asylum seekers navigate the legal process.

The growing backlog in asylum cases is a national trend. Federal law does not allow asylum applicants to get work permits to hold a job for at least six months.

As of April, 40,000 asylum cases were pending in the United States, including 28,000 that were filed in 2013 alone, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a voluntary association of attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law.

The number of new asylum applications filed in the Northeast region nearly doubled – rising from 2,928 to 5,633 – between fiscal years 2010 and 2013. And the regional office in New Jersey received more than 3,500 applications during the first six months of fiscal year 2014, well above the 2013 pace.

Asylum seekers typically come to the U.S. on valid visas and then apply for asylum to stay permanently to escape war-torn or politically troubled nations, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Asylum applicants have to prove there is a real risk they will be persecuted if they return home.

Meanwhile, 587 asylum applicants in Maine are waiting for interviews with the federal officers who review cases, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official said in September.

Roche said that last year the regional office sent only two hearing officers to Portland for one week to conduct crucial face-to-face interviews with roughly 40 applicants. This year, officials came to Portland twice, in March and September, and met with about 40 applicants each time, she said.

Roche said the number of immigrants seeking help from Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which provides pro bono legal services to applicants, has held steady. Last year, the group took on about 112 new cases and had to turn away at least as many because of a shortage of attorneys, Roche said.

Portland Adult Education’s New Mainers Resource Center helps immigrants learn English and figure out ways to convert their education and experience into new careers here. It also is straining to keep up.

“Making sure people have the English they need, and the job-readiness skills and the skills for their profession takes time and we don’t have all of the resources in place to provide all of those services,” said Sally Sutton, the organization’s project coordinator.

As the percentage of aid going to immigrants increases, Portland keeps waiting for clarity about LePage’s proposal to cut off assistance to asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants – a move that could cost the city millions of dollars.

LePage contends that Maine is not in compliance with the 1996 welfare reform act, which prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving welfare. The administration also has threatened to withhold general assistance funding from communities that continue to provide the aid.

However, Maine’s attorney general contends that the policy change is unconstitutional and that cities have no basis to deny the aid, leaving municipalities in a difficult position.

The Maine Municipal Association, along with Portland and Westbrook, has filed a lawsuit seeking clarity from the courts.

Portland recently estimated that the policy change sought by the state and the loss of state funding for the aid could end up costing the city $3 million to $9 million a year, or $55 to $165 for each property taxpayer. The city – which has an annual municipal budget of $221 million – has frozen nonessential overtime and hiring, as well as delayed some projects, in case the state prevails.

Brennan expects to know in January whether the state plans to reimburse the city for aid it is giving out. “That might be another decision point,” he said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.