AUBURN — The city will continue paying General Assistance benefits to a small group of asylum-seeking immigrant families, even though there are questions about whether or not that money will be repaid by the state.

“We have a moral obligation, and then we have a financial obligation, and sometimes those don’t match,” Councilor Tizz Crowley said.

Dot Meagher, the city’s director of health and social services, said Auburn has three asylum-seeking immigrant families. One is a single resident and two are large families. Members are currently waiting for green cards and cannot seek jobs until that status is granted.

“It hasn’t been a big issue in smaller communities because there are few individuals that fall into this category,” Meagher said.

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

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

The Department of Health and Human Services changed those rules last summer, disallowing 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. Federal rules may require communities to pay, however, and Maine courts are reviewing the rule change.

In the meantime, Meagher said the city has been been paying General Assistance to unqualified residents out of some legacy trust funds. Payments to the three families could increase to $40,000 per year, and that could deplete that trust, she said.

“The larger households obviously are more expensive and will deplete our trust fund more quickly,” Meagher said.

Councilor David Young said he had problems using that money.

“I think people who are coming here disregard their responsibilities,” Young said.

Councilor Mary LaFontaine disagreed.

“Typically, they are coming from a country that is war torn or means some sort of danger to them,” she said. “People coming from Paris, France, would not be granted asylum because it is a safe country and there are opportunities there. The purpose of asylum is that they are escaping. They are not coming here because things are peachy in their country.”

Councilors told Meagher to continue what she has been doing, using the trust. Councilor Crowley urged residents and local churches to help out, perhaps replenishing the trust.

“If somebody feels that in the United States, no one should go cold, no one should go hungry, no one should go without medical care, there are ways you can step up and every dollar counts,” she said. “Hopefully, there will be a solution to the fiscal side before we have to make some tough decisions.”

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