AUGUSTA — The mayor of Lewiston is working with a pair of state senators from Auburn and Lisbon on a bill that would change the rules for dishing out city-controlled General Assistance, a state- and city-funded program for the poor facing financial hardships.

Mayor Robert Macdonald said immigrants who are seeking asylum in his city are receiving far more city support than immigrants who have been legally resettled. He wants to change state law so cities and towns would not have to pay General Assistance to those who do not have current documents allowing them to be in the United States.

Macdonald is working with Sens. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon.

Brakey, newly elected to the Senate, is the primary sponsor of the legislation, which has not yet been released in draft form from the legislative revisor’s office.

“What we plan to do is really refocus GA on how it’s used,” Mason said in a report aired on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network on Monday. “I think there’s a lot of people out there that need a little help, and that’s what GA is for — maybe they’re short on rent, or I’ve heard all kinds of reasons why people go to GA offices for help — but to be able to have a more clear set of guidelines for municipalities to follow.”

Brakey said the bill doesn’t specifically target asylum-seekers. Anybody who would be denied state or federal benefits because of their immigration status would also be ineligible for city benefits under the measure.

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During Lewiston’s last fiscal year, July 2013 to July 2014, those seeking asylum were paid $152,470 in General Assistance benefits compared to the $20,730 that was paid to refugees who have been resettled in Lewiston, Macdonald said.

The city spent a total of $761,094 on General Assistance with the vast bulk of the funding, $587,983, going to neither undocumented immigrants nor legal refugees.

Macdonald said he believes most of those seeking asylum can and want to work, but until they are legal to do so, he doesn’t want the city to have to provide welfare to people who would otherwise be denied benefits under state and federal law.

“We are in a real Catch-22 here,” Macdonald said. “What we are trying to do is cut them off from the welfare. They are here illegally — you can mince words and everything else, but they are here illegally and we are a nation of laws.”

Macdonald said he has tried to work with Maine’s U.S. senators to get a deal that would expedite work permits for asylum-seeking immigrants.

“I would love it if we could have them be able to work,” Macdonald said. “That would be great because they could fill positions in Lewiston that are going unfilled. But they can’t be sucking off us. We are responsible, we being the city of Lewiston. The federal government gives them nothing, the state government gives them nothing, but we are at the bottom of the food chain so we have to supply all their needs.”

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Macdonald said a case pending in the Maine courts between the administration of Gov. Paul LePage and the cities of Portland and Westbrook over whether the state can withhold its share of General Assistance to cities that provided benefits to undocumented workers may decide the issue. 

Should LePage prevail in court, Lewiston would lose 50 percent — the state’s share of General Assistance — of what it has paid to asylum-seeking immigrants since July 2014. That total of $29,250 equals about $6,000 per month, City Administer Ed Barrett said.

The city has paid out a total of $243,499 since July and has asked the state to reimburse $121,749 of that, Barrett wrote in an email message.

Macdonald said Lewiston’s working-class residents and retirees already struggle to pay their property taxes.

“A lot of the people around here are retired; they are struggling,” he said, “and we have to increase our tax rate to pay for these people who are here basically illegally because the government is not doing its job?”

But Christine Hastedt, a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice Partners, said Tuesday that Macdonald and many others are confusing the issue. Hastedt said those who have applied for asylum in the U.S. cannot be deported until their cases are disposed of at the federal level.

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“They have lawful status,” Hastedt said. “That is a wholly different thing than saying somebody is here illegally.”

She said a similar proposal was offered by Mason in 2014 but the measure was defeated in committee. Hastedt said the idea of denying those seeking asylum is rooted in a 1996 federal law change that said those seeking asylum could not receive federal welfare benefits until they were assigned legal status.  

Hastedt said Maine law did allow asylum seekers to apply for and receive General Assistance. She agrees with Macdonald that the root of the problem is in a slow-moving federal government, and one that hasn’t provided cities and states with the resources to support those given lawful status while they await a decision on their asylum applications.

Hastedt said only a small portion of General Assistance in Maine is spent on immigrants.

“I don’t think there is any disagreement that this is a federal problem,” Hastedt said. “But this is also not the fault of those seeking asylum. Does this mean states shouldn’t help people and protect them from homelessness and hunger?”

She said if Brakey and Macdonald were successful in passing a bill that allowed cities and towns to deny General Assistance to asylum-seeking immigrants, that wouldn’t prompt the federal government to action.

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State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said there was little doubt Maine cities and towns are struggling to make financial ends meet and agreed the problem needs to be addressed by the federal government.

“We cannot afford to provide benefits to people who are here illegally, yet we should not turn our backs on families seeking asylum from war-torn nations,” Rotundo said.

State Sen. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, who also serves as a Lewiston city councilor, said Tuesday he agreed with Macdonald that the bulk of the problem is the result of a slow work-permit process for those seeking asylum. 

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