LEWISTON — The number of asylum-seekers receiving General Assistance from the city could nearly double this year compared to fiscal 2015-16, according to city records. 

Figures from the Social Services Department show General Assistance has been provided to 355 asylum-seekers in the first half of this fiscal year, from July 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2016.

That compares to 416 in all of fiscal year 2015-16. The city confirmed Monday that 60 new “intakes” are scheduled over the next month. 

Political asylum is a legal status that must be determined by a court and can sometimes take years.

The increase has prompted a strong reaction from Mayor Robert Macdonald, who said he met with Gov. Paul LePage on Friday to discuss the issue. He said he’s hoping the governor’s budget proposals, which include restrictions on General Assistance, will be approved.

“I told him, ‘We can’t keep doing this,'” Macdonald said. He said the issue is hitting Lewiston the hardest.

“The people of Lewiston better wake up, because we’re spending money that we shouldn’t have to spend,” the mayor said.

General Assistance provides vouchers for food, shelter and other necessities to those in need. 

City Administrator Ed Barrett said Lewiston only provides General Assistance to those who qualify for the state’s 70 percent reimbursement to the city. Asylum-seekers can only receive General Assistance for up to two years.

In Portland, the city is authorizing General Assistance spending for some asylum-seekers who do not qualify for the state reimbursement. 

Despite the increased number of asylum-seekers in Lewiston, the General Assistance budget appears to be on track. During the first half of this fiscal year, expenditures were $395,623. The city spent $773,778 in fiscal year 2015-16. 

Assistance to asylum-seekers makes up $260,369 of the expenditures so far this year. In 2015-16, $399,958 of the $773,778 budget was spent on asylum-seekers. 

General Assistance was provided to 762 people in 2015-16, compared to 522 in the first half of this fiscal year. 

Macdonald said the city hired two additional General Assistance staff members in late 2016 to keep up with the increase. He said staff was “burned out.” 

He said February is already looking to be a busy month for the department. 

Sue Charron, director of Lewiston social services, said 60 new “intakes” of those seeking asylum status are scheduled over the next 30 days.

“We have been averaging 30 new asylum-seeker appointments in the most recent months,” she said in an email Monday. “With an additional full-time caseworker on board we have been able to increase our appointment schedule. However, 60 is proving to be too many due to the complexities of the cases. We will continue to schedule appointments, but we will need to look at how many intakes we can process in the coming months.”

Asked Monday if the higher numbers could be related to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban or policies, Barrett said, “We have seen a growing increase in asylum-seekers for some time now. Given this has been ongoing, I don’t believe we are seeing anything at the moment in reaction to the president’s order or policies.”

Macdonald said Monday that he agrees with most of Trump’s executive order regarding immigration. He said he believes many of those seeking asylum now are not fleeing life-threatening conditions.

“The governor and I are proponents of (General Assistance) for those who need it, not for those who are gaming the system,” Macdonald said.  

The governor’s budget proposal would make asylum-seekers ineligible for General Assistance, while also attempting to eliminate state support for the entire program. 

Barrett said the city’s General Assistance ordinance specifically follows the eligibility rules set out by state statute and regulations, meaning no changes can be made locally. 

Macdonald said that while he can’t do anything locally, he plans to fight the asylum-seeker rules. He said he hopes elected officials representing Lewiston in Augusta will also support LePage’s budget. 

“I’ve got 11 more months to go, and we’ll be fighting it,” Macdonald said. 

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General Assistance in Lewiston: 

July 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2016

Individuals served: 522

Refugees/immigrants: 34

Asylum-seekers: 355

Others: 133

July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016

Individuals served: 762

Refugees/immigrants: 74

Asylum-seekers: 416

Others: 272

Source: Lewiston Social Services Department

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