AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) – Republican Gov. Paul LePage's administration doesn't have to reimburse cities and towns for welfare provided to some immigrants who can't prove they're living in the U.S. legally but can't otherwise penalize municipalities for aiding that population, a Maine judge ruled Tuesday.
Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren said in his opinion that the Department of Health and Human Services overstepped its authority by not going through the proper rule-making process last year when it directed municipalities to stop providing general assistance benefits to certain immigrants, including those seeking asylum.
The judge ruled that the state can't punish municipalities for not complying with the rule by withholding all general assistance funding. But it also can't be forced to cover the costs of immigrants who are ineligible for assistance under federal law, the judge said.
The Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook sued the administration in July after LePage threated to withhold millions of dollars to cities and towns that continue providing benefits to people who can't prove they're living here legally.
But the mixed ruling gave both sides something to celebrate on Tuesday.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew called it a "major win" for the administration and its efforts to ensure that the state's resources are going to those who are most needy, like the elderly and disabled.
"We are very pleased that this decision urges Portland and other municipalities to abide by federal law and allows DHHS to continue denying reimbursements of welfare benefits paid in violation of the law," Mayhew said in a statement. "Portland has been paying millions of dollars in welfare benefits to illegal immigrants, and state taxpayers can rest assured that they will not be footing the bill as long as Gov. LePage is in office."
Zach Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said it was "an important victory for the rule of law." The ACLU joined the case on behalf of two women seeking asylum.
"The court was quite clear that DHHS acted illegally and unlawfully... that DHHS lacked legal authority to impose these rules on municipalities," Heiden said.
While LePage threated to erase all general assistance funding for municipalities that defied the directive, his administration has only stopped reimbursing cities for payments made to immigrants who are ineligible for assistance under federal law. That includes people who came to the U.S. illegally and those who've applied for asylum but are awaiting a decision. Many asylum seekers are unable to work because the process to obtain a permit can take months.
The city most impacted by the decision is Portland, which has had more than $3 million dollars in reimbursements withheld by the state over the last year, according to figures provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. A spokeswoman for the city said it is reviewing the decision to determine its next steps.
The state also has denied reimbursements to Westbrook, Lewiston, South Portland and Bangor, the department said.
LePage hired a private attorney to defend the administration because Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, disagreed with its policy. She said last June that LePage had no authority to implement the new rule and advised cities to continue providing assistance.