AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Health and Human Services has shot back at the Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook with a counterclaim in a legal battle that involves a new state initiative to bar undocumented aliens from receiving General Assistance benefits.

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit asks the court to declare whether municipalities are obliged to determine a General Assistance applicant’s residency status and whether DHHS has to reimburse municipalities for a portion of the cost of General Assistance for undocumented aliens.

The suit also calls on the court to force Portland and Westbrook to stop paying General Assistance to “aliens who are not federally-eligible aliens.”

DHHS argues in the suit that the Maine and U.S. constitutions do not prohibit municipalities from withholding General Assistance from undocumented aliens and do not prohibit DHHS from withholding reimbursements to towns and cities.

Neither Clifford Ruprecht of the Portland law firm Roach Hewitt Ruprecht Sanchez & Bischoff, who is representing DHHS in the suit, nor DHHS spokesman John Martins would answer detailed questions from the BDN.

“The department is currently involved in litigating this case and I can’t comment on any specifics at this time,” wrote Martins in response to questions. “That being said, the department takes every lawsuit seriously and will work with legal counsel to present a robust and thorough defense.”

General Assistance is a locally administered benefit designed to meet immediate financial crises. The state reimburses municipalities between 50 and 90 percent of the cost.

Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS issued a directive to municipalities earlier this year that said the state would no longer reimburse them for General Assistance they pay to some undocumented immigrants. The state later sent another letter to municipalities that said the state would deny all General Assistance reimbursements to municipalities that did not abide by the new rules related to undocumented aliens.

The legal maneuvering in this case has been unfolding since July. That’s when the Maine Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, along with the cities of Portland and Westbrook, sued the state to determine if the DHHS directives are legally binding.

Days later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Maine Equal Justice Partners filed a request to join the suit on behalf of two asylum seekers who came to the U.S. in 2013 from the country of Burundi. Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said the state’s argument around constitutionality doesn’t account for Maine law.

“The Maine Legislature has prohibited discrimination on the basis of where someone is from and it’s quite clear that Maine law prohibits the sort of discrimination that [Health Commissioner Mary Mayhew] and the governor want to provide,” said Heiden.

Heiden said he expects the case to be the subject of a conference in the coming weeks during which both parties and a judge will decide the next steps in the proceeding. Heiden said he is hopeful that the court will impose an injunction to prevent the state from stopping General Assistance reimbursements to municipalities while court proceedings are underway.

“These proposed changes have really upended General Assistance programs in very troubling ways,” said Heiden. “The people of Maine deserve clear answers from a court.”

Earlier this month, the state filed a request to move the pending lawsuit to U.S. District Court, arguing that there are federal issues at play, including interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.