Advocates for immigrants and the poor packed City Hall on Monday to ask the City Council not to cut emergency aid that goes to certain immigrant groups. The pleas came during a public hearing on the city’s proposed budget for next year.

The council on Monday unanimously approved sending the $102.8 million school budget to a citywide referendum on May 12. But councilors have yet to make a final decision on the municipal budget proposal, which includes scaling back general assistance eligibility, in line with Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to cut aid to certain immigrants, most seeking asylum.

The state has already pulled its share of the aid this year, but the city has been covering the cost, expected to be about $4.6 million.

It would cost about $5.7 million if the city covers it next year. LePage’s budget contains a proposal to change the state statute, while an administrative rule change to do the same is being challenged by Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association.

LePage has said the state’s general assistance money should be used to help needy Mainers first and that the change he is proposing is consistent with federal law.

If the council approves a budget including stricter eligibility standards, more than 400 Portland families totaling more than 900 people could lose aid for housing, food and medicine.

“I’m really concerned about the human aspect of people being thrown out of their apartments,” said Alain Nahimana, of the Maine Immigrants’ rights coalition. “We are seeing ahead of us some human drama.”

Nearly everyone at the hearing agreed that asylum seekers should receive temporary aid until they receive their federal work permits – which takes at least 150 days.

But views differed about what to do while awaiting the fate of the governor’s proposal.

Ron Kreisman, a lawyer who has worked on immigrant issues, argued that the city will hand LePage a political victory if it approves a budget that eliminates aid to asylum seekers. “I don’t understand from the purely tactical point of view why you would possibly give this gift to this governor at this moment,” Kreisman said.

But Councilor Jill Duson said that if the city continues to cover services for asylum seekers, the Legislature will be more likely to approve LePage’s proposal.

“My message is Portland cannot cover by fiat 80 percent of the cost of general assistance and shelter services,” Duson said. “My message to my colleagues in the state Legislature is there are real consequences to the people of Portland if they pass that budget.”

The council is expected to vote on its municipal budget May 18.


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