LEWISTON — Baby Pemba told Lewiston city councilors Tuesday that hers has not been an easy path to the United States.

A gospel singer in Angola, she recorded a song critical of violence against women and found herself a target. With one cousin killed and another seriously injured, she fled — and found her way to Lewiston.

She’s grateful for the financial help the city offers through it’s General Assistance office and said it’s all she has until she is granted asylum in this country and is able to find a job. She begged councilors not to let it stop.

“All we truly want is to leave your assistance and be independent,” she said, speaking through interpreter Vanessa Stasse. “But how are we going to do that if we are not allowed to work in this country?”

Pemba was one of 60 people who filled the City Council chambers to urge councilors to continue providing General Assistance, despite a policy change from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Paul LePage.

“I am awaiting asylum so that I can become an active member of this society and offer my talents to this community,” Pemba said. “So I beg you, by the grace of God, to let us wait for work permits. We are not lazy. We are hard workers and we want to be independent.”

City Administrator Ed Barrett suggested councilors continue to pay General Assistance to all who meet the state’s former criteria, and to ask the state to reimburse the city for what it will.

“There is enough uncertainty about the constitutionality of the state’s guidance that a municipality could be sued by otherwise eligible applicants who are denied General Assistance benefits,” Barrett said. “If we decide to go ahead and follow the guidance, there is the potential the city could be a party to a suit by an individual who was denied.”

Maine law requires cities and towns to pay General Assistance to needy residents out of their general funds and property taxes. Single recipients can be eligible for up to $537 per month in aid from the city to help pay for basic necessities: housing, utilities, medicine and food. Multi-person households can be eligible for more.

The state then reimburses Maine cities and towns for a portion of what they paid out. Generally, the state repays half of what the municipality paid. The state reimbursement rate increases to 90 percent for a city once it pays out a certain amount.

DHHS wants to disallow the use of state funds for General Assistance that’s distributed to undocumented immigrants and people who are here but have not yet been granted asylum status.

The Maine Municipal Association filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County last week challenging the legality of the new policy.

Barrett said paying General Assistance to some who didn’t fit the state’s new criteria could cost Lewiston about $2,500 in state reimbursements in June and about $3,000 in July.

He expects that would increase to about $10,000 in August as visas expire for some asylum-seekers. That would make them undocumented, according to the new policy, Barrett said.

“At the moment, we have not seen a large potential financial penalty,” Barrett said. “Once we get down into later in the year we may be looking at $10,000 month and that adds up quickly.”

He suggested councilors take up the matter again at their next meeting.

“Our preference would be to have an answer or a preliminary answer by that Aug. 12 meeting,” Barrett said. “It’s a hard question of how long the council is willing to carry on with this financial uncertainty.”

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