AUGUSTA, Maine — The state on Friday filed a request to move a pending lawsuit over the legality of providing general assistance funds to certain immigrants to federal court, saying there are federal issues at play that must be decided by a U.S. District Court judge.

The entities suing the state — the Maine Municipal Association, which represents Maine’s towns and cities, and the cities of Portland and Westbrook alone — dispute any federal involvement in their case, and say the state’s action is only geared to slow its review.

The suit, first filed in state court in June, asks a judge to determine whether the state followed the legally required process in creating a new rule banning “illegal aliens” from receiving General Assistance, a program funded by state and local dollars to provide aid to residents who cannot afford food, shelter or other basic needs.

Gov. Paul LePage has said the state will not provide its share of General Assistance funding to towns and cities that continue to aid such immigrants. But Maine’s Attorney General, Janet Mills, has advised municipalities that the new rule was not vetted or crafted as required by Maine law, and is thus unenforceable.

The governor has said he’s simply following a 1996 federal law that his administration interprets as preventing Maine municipalities from distributing local assistance to undocumented immigrants.

MMA and several cities have said the fight between Mills and LePage has left them in an impossible situation — provide aid and risk losing state funding, or deny aid and risk a lawsuit from an aggrieved applicant.

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.

Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association said Friday that the group’s lawsuit only sought a determination on the procedural issue, and had nothing to do with federal law.

“Our whole complaint had to do only with the procedural issue of how you adopt new rules in this state, in this case rules for the towns to follow,” he said.

Herman said MMA’s lawyers would examine the state’s request and respond appropriately. However, he said that MMA is seeking an immediate injunction against the state enforcing the new rule, and he worried this legal maneuver could delay the court’s decision.

“We don’t want our part of the case delayed, just going into limbo for a long period of time,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

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,...