AUGUSTA, Maine — 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 individuals and families 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 state Senate, is the primary sponsor of the proposed 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 Monday on the Maine Public Broadcast Network. “I think there’s a lot of people out there that they need a little help, and that’s what GA is for … but [Maine has] 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 but anybody who would be denied state or federal benefits because of their immigration status would also be ineligible for city benefits under the measure.

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.

Overall, the city spent $761,094 on General Assistance — with the vast bulk of the funding, $587,983, going to neither undocumented immigrants nor to 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 assistance to individuals 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 in here illegally, you can mince words and everything else, but they are here illegally and we are a nation of laws.”

Macdonald said he’s even tried to work with Maine’s U.S. Senate delegation to get a deal that would expedite work permits for asylum-seeking immigrants by promising the city would help those seeking jobs.

“I would love it if we could have them be able to work. That would be great because they could fill positions in Lewiston that are going unfilled,” Macdonald said. “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.”

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

But ultimately the issue is one for the federal government to fix, Macdonald said.

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

“We are not a place where a lot of people have money,” Macdonald said. “A lot of the people around here are retired, they are struggling, 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.

“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 a legislative 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 any 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 also said the portion of General Assistance in Maine that’s spent on immigrants in all categories represents a fraction of what is spent on others.

“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 Mason 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.

State lawmakers from Lewiston said Macdonald did not ask for their help with the proposed law change. State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, wrote in an email message that the city’s legislative delegation met with city officials on Dec. 23 and Macdonald’s proposal was not among the issues they discussed.

City officials did ask Lewiston’s lawmakers to support legislation that would put the General Assistance program in the control of state instead of city government.

But, Rotundo said, the idea the city wants a law change that would allow it to stop providing General Assistance to asylum-seeking refugees never came up.

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

Libby said he couldn’t comment on any of the specifics in the bill from Mason and Brakey because he hadn’t seen the wording, but he did say he would be interested in helping cities resolve problems related to General Assistance.

He and Hastedt said there is some belief that turning General Assistance back over to the state to administer would result in a more consistent program instead of one that varies from municipality to municipality.

“One would think if it is administered by the state we would see more uniformity in how General Assistance is given out,” Libby said. “But it’s a pretty complicated state program that the state mandates municipalities administer. So I think there are a lot of questions about what a state takeover on General Assistance would look like.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.