An attorney representing Portland and Westbrook wants a judge to order the state to resume General Assistance funding that he says is being “wrongfully withheld” from communities while they challenge the state’s new policy on providing aid to immigrants.

Attorney Russell Pierce said he will ask Justice Thomas Warren on Thursday to hear arguments “as soon as possible” on his request that the state be forced to provide the funding while a lawsuit challenging the policy, which prohibits asylum-seekers from receiving General Assistance, is litigated.

“There is no reason to suspend this program,” Pierce told the Portland City Council on Monday. “We don’t want to have to wait until the very end” of the lawsuit.

John Martins, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the General Assistance program, said in an email that the department could not discuss the legal action by the two cities.

“The department will continue to act to ensure General Assistance reimbursements are distributed appropriately and in compliance with state and federal law,” the statement said. “This matter is currently being litigated and the department is unable to discuss specifics at this time.”

Earlier this year, the DHHS directed Maine communities to stop providing General Assistance to asylum seekers who have expired visas, a policy it says is consistent with federal welfare rules that deny such benefits to undocumented immigrants unless a state Legislature specifically allows it. The Maine Legislature has taken no such action.

The LePage administration says asylum seekers are undocumented because their visas have expired. Advocates for immigrants argue that asylum seekers are documented because they arrive with valid visas and have applied to stay here permanently to avoid persecution in their home countries. Asylum seekers must wait at least 150 days from the date they file their asylum requests before receiving a federal work permit, and many rely on General Assistance until they can find work.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has called the new state policy unconstitutional, but Gov. Paul LePage appears to be following through on a threat he made earlier this year to withhold all General Assistance reimbursements – not just for payments to asylum seekers – to communities that continue to provide aid to “undocumented” immigrants.

General Assistance is an emergency program that uses state and municipal funds to help recipients pay for rent, heat or other necessities. Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association filed a lawsuit challenging the new state policy, arguing that the administration did not follow formal rulemaking procedures when instituting it. The two cities continue to provide the aid to asylum seekers despite receiving no state reimbursements since June, when the policy took effect.

The two cities want the court to intervene while the lawsuit is pending so they can plan their upcoming budgets. Portland has estimated that if the administration prevails, it could cost the city $3 million to $9 million a year in lost state revenue. The city has already frozen non-essential hiring and overtime and postponed some projects to buffer the impact.

The amended complaint seeking General Assistance reimbursements while the lawsuit is litigated was filed Dec. 12 and will be addressed during a conference Thursday with Justice Warren.

According to the amended complaint, Portland hasn’t received reimbursements that it requested for July, August or September.

In its reimbursement requests, Portland has separated General Assistance clients affected by the administration’s policy from those who would still qualify for benefits. The city has billed the state $427,668 for “undocumented” clients and $849,553 for all others – the $1,277,221 is 50 percent of the city’s total General Assistance costs for those months, according to city records.

Historically, the state has reimbursed the city within a month of receiving a request or “a short, reasonable time thereafter,” the complaint states. The state has never told the city it is not in compliance with the new policy, and has not officially denied the city’s reimbursement requests.

Westbrook submits its General Assistance requests at least quarterly. Its request for July and August did not seek reimbursement for “undocumented” immigrants, yet the state has not reimbursed that city for any of its General Assistance costs, or informed Westbrook officials that its requests have been denied.

Westbrook spent about $72,000 on General Assistance in July and August. It submitted a reimbursement request in October for $25,000 for those months, said Sarah Lundin, the city’s GA administrator.

Lewiston, which like Portland has a large immigrant population, has submitted reimbursement requests from June through November for $175,761, said GA director Sue Charron. That request doesn’t include the $32,983 the city would normally be reimbursed for “undocumented” immigrants, but the city reserves the right to claim those costs if the administration’s policy is reversed, she said.

“We should have gotten something by now,” Charron said. “It’s unusual.”

South Portland was not able to provide information about the status of its reimbursement requests on Tuesday.