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Maine Cities Ignore LePage's Immigrant Assistance Rule

Three Maine cities say they will continue to offer welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants, despite a warning from the LePage administration that they will not be reimbursed for the aid and could be audited. The Department of Health and Human Services says the policy change - announced in a memo last week - will save the state roughly $1 million a year and bring Maine into compliance with the 1996 federal welfare reform law. But in a letter issued yesterday, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says the administration's directive raises troubling legal questions and puts cities and towns in a bind.

In fights like this one, involving partisan politics and differing interpretations of the law, Maine's 490 cities and towns often turn to the Maine Muncipal Association for guidance. But this week, Geoff Herman, who oversees state and federal relations at the MMA, says the group has had just as many questions as its members.

"So you have the state government, with a capital 'S' and a capital 'G,' giving us two messages," Herman says.

The first came in a memo from Republican Gov. Paul LePage's Department of Health and Human Services. Stop giving welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants or face possible auditing and a loss of General Assistance money from the state.

But in a letter to the Maine Municipal Association on Tuesday , Attorney General Janet Mills, who is a Democrat, calls the LePage memo merely advisory, and questions whether the state could legally withhold welfare funding from cities and towns that defy the administration's orders.

"The Catch-22 is that the towns are going to have to do one thing or another, both of which have a negative consequence," Herman says.

Either ignore the governor, says Geoff Herman, and risk welfare losing funding or "we follow the department's guidance and deny these applicants and risk getting sued by the applicants, low-income advocates, the ACLU and others," who believe that what the LePage administration is doing here is illegal.

And for now, at least, Maine's largest municipalities show no signs of changing their policies on who is eligible to receive welfare benefits.

"We shouldn't be cutting it off immediately. There are people that are at high risk. They have the possibility of losing their shelter and their food," says Mark Rees, Portland's city manager.

Rees says a little more than 600 undocumented immigrants get some form of General Assistance in Portland. "Basically, I informed the City Council that we will be continuing to offer benefits. We will then report, in early July, in terms of what additonal information is coming forward. It's a very fluid situation."

In Lewiston Tuesday night, Mayor Robert Macdonald told the City Council he would be happy to stop providing benefits to undocumented immigrants, according to the Sun Journal newspaper.

"We have people that are here legally and they get help," Macdonald reportedly told the council, "But why should we be forced to help someone who just jumped the fence?" Nonetheless, the Lewiston City Council said it would continue to offer the benefits until it gets more clarity on who holds the legal high ground.

"Bangor is going to continue to follow the guidance provided by the AG's office," says Cathy Conlow, Bangor's city manager. "As we read the law, as our attorney reads the law, there was no changes that were prescribed in the law that would lead us to believe that we should, or are allowed, to do anything different."

A call to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services seeking comment on the Attorney General's letter - and what, if any, consequences cities and towns could face for defying the administration - was not returned by airtime.