AUGUSTA, Maine — A group representing Maine’s towns and cities will ask a Superior Court judge to weigh in on the legality of a controversial order from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration directing municipalities to stop distributing General Assistance funds to undocumented immigrants.

The Maine Municipal Association revealed its plan to file the lawsuit in a letter to municipalities sent Monday morning.

The new General Assistance guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services direct each municipality’s General Assistance administrator to verify an applicant’s immigration status before giving any aid.

According to the new guidelines, noncitizens with expired documentation are ineligible for assistance, as are immigrants who have applied for asylum or refugee status but are awaiting a final decision on their applications. The latter group would be turned away, even if they had a receipt from the federal government indicating that they are in the country legally.

On Saturday, immigrants and advocates held a news conference in Portland, during which they called the General Assistance policy change “ morally indefensible.”

Maine Municipal Association — as well as the state’s attorney general, Democrat Janet Mills — have criticized the governor for unilaterally implementing the new policy without going through the rulemaking process established by Maine statute. Mills has said the new guidelines are illegal and unenforceable, and she also has indicated the policy may be unconstitutional.

In a letter to municipalities last week, LePage said he was simply enforcing a 1996 federal law barring states from giving assistance to undocumented immigrants. He also pledged to withhold all state reimbursement to any municipality that continued offering General Assistance to undocumented immigrants.

In Bangor and Portland — two cities that have pledged to ignore the new guidelines, and comprise 60 percent of all GA spending — that could mean millions of dollars in lost state reimbursement.

In response to the news MMA would pursue legal action, DHHS spokesman John Martins reiterated the administration’s position.

“As we have said from the beginning, federal law doesn’t allow state reimbursement for illegal immigrants and we are simply enforcing federal law,” he said. “We believe this is a common sense measure to ensure that state funds are going to help U.S. citizens or those people who are in Maine with documented status.”

General Assistance is a program to provide temporary assistance to families or individuals who cannot afford life necessities such as heat, housing, food or utilities. The program is administered at the municipal level but funded by a combination of state and local dollars. The state reimburses towns for between 50 and 90 percent of General Assistance costs.

In the letter to municipalities, MMA Executive Director Chris Lockwood said the legal action should not be construed as a response to the political controversy swirling around General Assistance, but to the “untenable position” that GA administrators have been placed in.

He said the lawsuit — in which MMA will be joined by an “appropriate party” — is meant to “provide municipal officials with the most accurate, objective and dependable information they need to steer through the legal minefield in front of them.”

“There is no indication that the dilemma confronting municipal officials that has been generated by sharply conflicting instructions from state government will be resolved among the various state entities, at least anytime soon,” he wrote.

Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for Maine Municipal Association, said the lawsuit is one part of a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the General Assistance controversy.

The lawsuit, he said, is the first prong. Maine Municipal Association is “seeking a declaratory judgment in Superior Court, as to whether the rules, or directives, were properly implemented and legally enforceable,” he said.

The lawsuit will not ask questions about the legality of denying General Assistance benefits to undocumented immigrants. That’s where the second prong comes in, he said. Maine Municipal Association will hire an outside legal firm to research questions about the 1996 law cited by LePage, and what it means for Maine.

Mills, in a statement last week, said the federal law has no enforcement mechanism and has not been tested in court. She said it could represent an overreach of congressional authority over the states.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...