The Portland City Council passed a $240 million municipal budget last week without including, or even discussing, nearly a million dollars to provide assistance to as many as 180 asylum seekers who could be cut off state assistance in the coming year.

Now some officials and advocates are hoping the issue gets addressed by the Legislature.

The city does provide aid to asylum seekers on a regular basis and uses state funds to help pay for it. But a state law limits immigrants seeking asylum to no more than 24 months of state-funded assistance, and a small minority of recipients are approaching that limit.

Funding for the aid had been one of the major unresolved budget questions in Portland ever since City Manager Jon Jennings flagged the issue for the City Council when he first presented his budget April 5, saying it was a policy decision that he was leaving to the city’s elected officials.

However, leading up to the May 15 budget vote, councilors expressed concern that they may not be able to provide assistance without violating state or federal law, even if no state funds are used. They were hoping to get additional information from the city attorney about legal options, and from health and human services staff about the number of people who would be affected in the first months of the fiscal year.

But the subject was not discussed at last week’s public meeting when the budget was approved. It has only been discussed in detail by the council in a private session, which is allowed when the council gets legal advice.

“What we have heard from staff is that we are unable to legally address the issue with local public money,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said Friday, suggesting that the city could work with nonprofit groups to provide assistance. “I have also heard we are working tirelessly to find alternative paths for many of those we expect to be affected.”

The week before the budget vote, several city councilors expressed hope that state legislators would change the 24-month cap as part of the budget process, or at least amend the law to allow for municipalities to provide aid without seeking state reimbursement.

“There are all kinds of General Assistance bills in the Legislature, where language could be added,” City Councilor David Brenerman said at the time.

Providing General Assistance to asylum seekers has been a hot-button issue in Portland ever since Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election campaign in 2014. His administration stopped reimbursing Maine’s largest city for assistance provided to this class of immigrants, arguing that it violated federal law.

After the state began withholding reimbursements, Portland and Westbrook sued the state and argued that cities could not legally deny aid based on immigration status.

A Superior Court judge sided with the state and ruled that the Legislature would need to pass a law making asylum seekers eligible for public benefits for the cities to continue the practice. Lawmakers passed such a law in 2015 but also added a 24-month cap on benefits.

The vast majority of asylum seekers in Maine arrive in the U.S. on student, work or visitation visas and then file for asylum after their visas have expired. Asylum applicants must show that they could face harm or persecution if they return to their home countries.

It can take months to assemble documents to support requests and to complete the application process, and applicants then wait years for interviews with immigration officials because of a growing national backlog.

And because federal law also prohibits asylum seekers from receiving legal work permits for at least six months after they apply, some asylum seekers turn to General Assistance to meet their basic needs for food and housing.

Two years is enough time for most asylum seekers to become independent, but a smaller number need extended help for various reasons, advocates say.

Some immigrants simply cannot secure the proper documents to work within two years and face additional obstacles for employment, said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.

“A majority of asylum seekers receive their work authorization and are able to find work within two years, so they no longer need General Assistance,” Roche said. “But a small minority have to wait longer for their work authorization because of immigration backlogs, or they have additional challenges finding work due to their age or a disability.”

The actual number of asylum seekers who rely on assistance beyond 24 months is not clear. Initial estimates were that as many as 180 people could hit the two-year limit in Portland during the fiscal year that begins July 1, and that it would cost about $950,000 to extend benefits to them.

Several councilors have suggested that the initial estimate is too high because some of those people have gotten jobs, qualified for disability benefits or haven’t come back to the city for assistance for months.

“I think the realistic number is much lower than that,” City Councilor Justin Costa said.

The city now estimates that about 56 people – 24 able-bodied adults and 32 temporarily or permanently disabled adults – may reach their 24-month limit in the next fiscal year, according to Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director.

Grondin said that as long as nothing changes, asylum seekers who reach their limits will be given the standard information for people who do not qualify for General Assistance and will be linked with the city’s HIRE program, which seeks to connect people to educational and work training programs.

“We have an internal meeting scheduled (this) week to try and develop some strategies to address this issue further,” Grondin said.

While some hope that the Legislature takes up the issue and restores eligibility to the asylum seekers, advocates say they are concerned about proposals to further cut or even eliminate the General Assistance program.

“We are very busy trying to protect the program overall,” said Robyn Merrill, executive director of the Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income people.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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