Immigration advocates and religious leaders called Wednesday for intervention by state lawmakers to avoid what they said could be a humanitarian crisis in the wake of a court ruling on public assistance for about 1,000 immigrants living in Portland and other cities while seeking asylum.

The decision issued Tuesday by a Superior Court judge affirmed the state’s right to withhold funding for aid provided to immigrants who are ineligible under federal law. However, the ruling was critical of the LePage administration for calling the immigrants “illegals” and said the state should have followed proper rule-making procedures before telling municipalities last June to stop providing state-funded General Assistance to asylum seekers and visa holders.

It’s unclear if the decision will lead Portland and other cities to cut off the aid or continue providing it despite losing millions of dollars in state funding. Advocates for the poor say they are looking to the Legislature for help by passing a law to make the immigrants eligible. Representatives of the cities also may seek a clarification from the court. No official decisions have been made regarding an appeal.

“We’re mostly concerned about how this will impact the individuals. Their lives are hanging in the balance as all of this is happening,” said Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group that focuses on state policies and programs affecting the poor. “The Legislature can easily fix this mess.”

HOPING FOR A LEGISLATIVE SOLUTION

That sentiment was echoed in a statement issued Wednesday by religious leaders, including the Maine Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

“I ask Maine legislators and Gov. LePage to acknowledge the fundamental dignity of every human being in our state and work together to prevent inflicting unnecessary hardship on our friends and neighbors,” Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine said in the written statement.

The LePage administration, however, says the ruling allows more resources to be devoted to elderly and disabled Mainers.

“The court’s decision clearly stated that the state is well within in its rights to deny reimbursements for benefits paid to non-qualified aliens,” said David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s not clear whether the Legislature will intervene before the session is scheduled to end Tuesday.

Merrill said a bill already moving through the Legislature could provide a compromise by prohibiting state General Assistance funds from being used to help people who are in the country illegally, while preserving the benefit for asylum seekers who arrived here with valid visas and are considered legal residents while they wait for a decision on asylum. Many asylum seekers rely on the aid to help pay for rent and basic needs because they are not allowed to work for at least six months after applying for asylum.

“Hopefully it won’t continue to be a partisan issue,” Merrill said. “It’s in everybody’s interest to sort this out.”

Meanwhile, the Maine Municipal Association is in talks with Portland and Westbrook about seeking a clarification from the court, said spokesman Eric Conrad.

He said the association’s attorneys are “confounded” by the ruling. Although encouraged that the judge ruled the administration needed to follow rule-making procedures, the association is confused about whether it is the responsibility of the state or the municipality to determine eligibility based on immigration status.

“It was a complicated ruling,” Conrad said.

Sorensen said the administration is “extremely pleased” with the decision.

“The court’s decision vindicates what we’ve been doing and doesn’t require us to do it any differently,” he said.

CITIES CONSIDER ABSORBING THE COSTS

Before the court ruling, both the LePage administration and the plaintiffs expected the case to be decided on appeal, but officials in Portland said it’s too early to say whether an appeal will be filed.

“We are still carefully reviewing the judge’s decision in order to determine what our next steps will be,” City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said in an email response to a question posed to the city attorney. “Unfortunately, at this time, we can’t comment further.”

Officials in Portland and other cities must now evaluate how the court decision affects their General Assistance programs and whether they can afford to continue providing the aid when the next fiscal year starts July 1.

General Assistance provides basic needs such as vouchers for rent or heat. It is administered by cities and towns, but the state provides a portion of the funding.

Portland, for example, may have to use about $5 million in surplus funds to make up for the loss of state reimbursements in the current fiscal year. It would cost the city about $4 million in the next 12 months if it continues to provide the aid and decides to add the expense to the new budget.

Citing uncertainty over state reimbursements, Portland’s former acting city manager, Sheila Hill-Christian, proposed eliminating General Assistance to the affected groups in her budget, while also providing transitional funding for them. The proposal drew widespread criticism from asylum seekers and immigration advocates.

The City Council’s Finance Committee is expected on Tuesday to take up a proposed budget amendment that would restore the funding. As of Wednesday, the budget amendment didn’t include the impact on local property taxpayers, because it was assumed the city would be reimbursed by the state.

Grondin said Acting Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance, who is involved in preparing the budget, wasn’t available to discuss whether the city could absorb those additional costs.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan did not return a call for comment.

Lewiston City Administrator Edward Barrett said the City Council can decide whether to continue providing assistance, once the ruling is clarified. “At the moment we’re just confused and we need to have more information,” Barrett said.

He said the budget for next year adopted by the council includes General Assistance funding for an estimated 50 asylum seekers in Lewiston. The budget assumes no reimbursements from the state and is estimated to cost local taxpayers $80,000, he said.

RULING PRESENTS NEW CHALLENGES

Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said next year’s budget anticipated a $70,000 loss in state revenue that would have resulted from a more general change in the General Assistance reimbursement formula, which did not gain the support of legislators. The budget did not take into account state funding for asylum seekers, he said.

Bryant said the court ruling “better defined” the financial impact on the city and that he planned to meet with the mayor and councilors in the coming weeks to discuss what program changes, if any, are warranted.

Deciding to stop providing General Assistance to asylum seekers would carry its own set of challenges, he said.

“Because this didn’t go through a rule-making process, there is no clear criteria as to why someone would be eligible or ineligible based on their citizenship status,” he said. “We will certainly seek greater clarity from DHHS, now that this ruling has been handed down.”