LEWISTON — The city will close the books on its welfare rolls for new asylum-seekers for now, councilors decided Tuesday night in a 4-3 vote.

The city will not accept new asylum-seekers in its General Assistance program as of July 1. Those currently getting help from the city will continue indefinitely, or until they no longer need help.

The decision capped a three-hour discussion about General Assistance and the nature of people who came to the United States and eventually to Lewiston for a safe haven. Most can’t legally work yet and depend on the city aid payments.

“Despite what the federal government does, despite what the state does, we have a commitment to everybody that’s on this program right now,” Councilor Shane Bouchard said. “Am I in favor of a time limit? Maybe. I’d really like to see this continue until everybody on it can transition off.”

More than 100 people filled the council chamber and 33 addressed councilors. Only one spoke in favor of cutting General Assistance.

“When we talk about what we need in this community — as in educated individuals, role models in the downtown — we are rejecting these people and we don’t have the right to do that,” landlord Adilah Muhammad said. “We can’t afford to do it, really.”

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services wants to disallow the use of state funds for General Assistance distributed to undocumented immigrants and people who are here but have not been granted asylum status yet. Those people are here legally, but cannot work until they get that status. Many are fleeing violent, war-torn regions.

Maine Superior Court ruled last month that communities such as Lewiston are not required to pay people without legal status. Officials can, but the state is not required to reimburse those payments.

Muhammad said many of the asylum-seekers receiving General Assistance are her best tenants. Many are highly educated and eager to work, with master’s degrees and doctorates.

“Their resume was so impressive I was shocked by my reaction to it,” she said.

Julia Sleeper, executive director of Tree Street Youth, urged councilors to look at people seeking asylum as a benefit. They tend to be educated, hardworking people fleeing a dangerous situation.

“Please, consider the long term impact — not one year, not two but five,” Sleeper said. “Think about 10 years, what this could do for Lewiston. I very rarely speak about issues but that is how passionate I am about that. I promise you, I know these kids will be successful.”

Others, including representatives for Lewiston’s Trinity Episcopal Church and the Auburn Unitarian Universalists, said it’s a moral decision.

“I believe it would be a denial of basic human decency,” said Jodi Cohen Hayashida, minister at Auburn’s First Universalist Church. “I believe you know that a budget is a moral document, that the ways in which we choose to spend our money reflect our values and it is precisely when decisions are hard that we begin to show our true colors.”

Mayor Robert Macdonald said they appreciated what the speakers said.

“But we also have another group: it’s called the elderly,” Macdonald said. “They live in houses and they can’t pay the increased taxes and they worry that we are going to throw them out.”

Councilors also said they were unsure what Portland will end up doing with its General Assistance funding. If Portland stops taking new asylum-seekers, it could send a flood of applicants to Lewiston.

“If we don’t follow Portland’s decision, it does open us up,” Cayer said. “We are one of the poorest states in the nation, one of the few that provides assistance to asylum-seekers. So if we don’t, it could put us at risk of a financial burden we could not handle.”

Ultimately, councilors voted 4-3 to stop accepting new asylum-seekers for benefits beginning Wednesday, with councilors Don D’Auteuil, Nate Libby and Kristen Cloutier dissenting.

Councilors also voted 6-1 to extend benefits indefinitely for those currently getting aid. But they also agreed to take up both matters again at their July 14 meeting for more analysis and deeper discussion.

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