Claude Rwaganje said his phone was ringing off the hook Wednesday with calls from asylum seekers worried that they and their families are about to lose access to food and housing.

“They are afraid,” Rwaganje said. “They don’t know what tomorrow will be.”

No one else seemed to know, either.

The Maine Legislature decided early Wednesday as part of a budget compromise to eliminate public assistance for immigrants who are seeking asylum and, in many cases, not allowed to work. The decision raised many unanswered questions about what will become of Maine’s roughly 1,000 asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom live in Portland.

Portland officials and advocates for immigrants said they still hold out hope that the Legislature will pass a separate bill to make asylum seekers eligible for public assistance. But the odds appeared long that such a bill could win the two-thirds support of lawmakers needed to override an inevitable veto by the governor.

Without legislative action, Portland’s City Council will have a painful decision to make: either approve a significant tax increase to cover the full cost of the aid, or cut off General Assistance to nearly 1,000 city residents who cannot otherwise afford housing and basic needs. Providing the aid for the next 12 months would cost the city an estimated $4 million to $5 million, which would translate to about $130 a year in additional taxes for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

That decision could come Wednesday, when councilors are scheduled to approve a new city budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“That will be their last hope,” Rwaganje said of Portland’s large community of asylum seekers.

Rwaganje can relate to the fears of the asylum seekers, mostly immigrants from Africa, who came to the United States with temporary work or visitor visas and then applied for permission to stay to escape violence or persecution in their home countries. It can take years to get a decision on asylum because of a nationwide backlog of applications. Asylum seekers are considered legal non-citizens, but must wait at least six months to receive permission from the federal government to work.

“(Some) have asylum pending for four years. They don’t know where to go or what to do,” said Rwaganje, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996. He now runs a financial counseling company and is someone other asylum seekers turn to for help.

FOCUS SHIFTS TO CITY HALL

As asylum seekers wait for answers, advocates and leaders in the faith community are rallying to preserve the aid at the city level and criticizing Maine’s Legislature for creating a potential “humanitarian crisis” by abandoning asylum seekers in order to secure their political future.

“The asylum community was collectively ‘thrown under the bus’ by lawmakers when they agreed to pass a budget that abandoned them,” the Rev. Sue Gabrielson, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said in a written statement Wednesday. “This is not the Maine I have known and loved.”

The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, co-pastor of the HopeGateWay Church in Portland, said it was “inhumane” for state lawmakers to “balance the state budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.” Ewing-Merrill also oversees the Hope House in Portland’s Parkside Neighborhood, which provides housing to 13 asylum seekers. He said that program also relies on General Assistance funding, so other money sources will be needed to keep the doors open if the city does not preserve the aid.

“I hope the City Council will do the right thing and find a way to help immigrants that are essential to the Portland economy,” he said. “I hope the City Council will lead from their hearts and find a way to assist immigrants who are calling Portland home.”

DOWN TO THE WIRE ON CITY BUDGET

The City Council was originally scheduled to vote on its budget May 18, but has twice delayed that vote in hopes of getting more clarity about the state budget. It will take up the budget again on Wednesday, just one week before the start of the new fiscal year. Officials said there is no contingency plan in place if aid is cut off after June 30.

“We tabled the budget with the best intentions,” said Councilor David Brenerman, noting that the city now has a clear idea about the state budget. “We didn’t get the result we wanted.”

Portland’s former acting city manager had recommended that the council adopt a budget that did not include state or local General Assistance funding for asylum seekers. She also set aside $350,000 in transitional funding and allocated additional grants to community organizations in order to help those affected while the city worked with community partners to develop a long-term plan.

But Acting City Manager Michael Sauschuck said Wednesday that the city has not discussed any contingency plans to deal with asylum seekers being cut off from both state and local aid. “I think it will be after the council makes a decision,” Sauschuck said.

The current budget proposal would increase taxes by 2.9 percent, increasing the tax rate by 58 cents to $20.58. That would increase taxes by $116 on a home assessed at $200,000.

Adding an addition $4 million to $5 million to the budget to pay for continued aid for asylum seekers would nearly double that increase.

City leaders also will have to contend with a change in the state reimbursement formula for General Assistance that will result in less funding for Portland and additional funding to more rural areas. And officials have been trying to find funds to keep open an overflow homeless emergency shelter that was proposed for closure in response to a separate state decision to no longer fund the operational costs of the city’s homeless shelters.

‘THE STAKES ARE TOO HIGH’

Mayor Michael Brennan, who has been advocating for continued assistance from the state, would not say whether he supports funding the program entirely with local property tax revenue, other than saying “all options are on the table.” Instead, he said, he still hopes legislators will pass L.D. 369, a bill that would prohibit illegal immigrants from getting assistance while preserving access for legal non-citizens, such as asylum seekers.

On Monday, Brennan and local business leaders held a news conference on the steps of City Hall to advocate for the bill’s passage, saying that immigrants are vital to addressing the shortage of skilled labor in Maine’s aging workforce. Many asylum seekers are highly educated.

But that bill faces an uphill climb. A similar amendment to the state budget passed the Democrat-controlled House on Tuesday, only to be stripped out by the Republican-controlled Senate early Wednesday morning. The standalone bill would have to pass with a two-thirds vote of both chambers in order to survive a veto by Gov. Paul LePage, who has made eliminating this type of assistance central to his welfare reforms.

Robyn Merrill, executive director of the Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization, said she is hopeful that the Legislature will pass the standalone bill by a veto-proof margin. That hope, she said, is pinned to comments made by some legislators, including Republicans, who support the concept but voted against the budget amendment simply to preserve the deal struck by leaders.

“We have to try. The stakes are too high,” Merrill said. “We can’t have families with children on the streets with nowhere to go. That’s not acceptable.”

COURT RULING COMPLICATION

Portland Councilor Jon Hinck said he is skeptical that local taxpayers can pick up the additional costs if the Legislature does not. Hinck said he had entered this year’s budgeting process hoping for no property tax increases.

“I really reject the idea that when the governor unilaterally pulls out of a partnership that drops responsibility that we call on the taxpayers of the city of Portland to fill the gap,” Hinck said.

A Superior Court ruling stating that local and state benefits cannot be given to asylum seekers without a law specifically making them eligible also could raise a question of whether the city could legally adopt its own assistance program.

The city has not indicated whether it would appeal that ruling. The Maine Municipal Association is “actively discussing” whether to seek a clarification from the court, which also ruled that the LePage administration needed to follow proper rule-making procedures before denying reimbursements, said spokesman Eric Conrad.

Despite the open legal questions, Brennan highlighted the fact that the federal government has never taken enforcement action against communities that have provided such aid.

“It’s pretty clear the federal government hasn’t prosecuted any state at this point for a violation of federal law, and I can’t imagine that Portland would be high on the list,” Brennan said.