AUGUSTA — Maxwell Chikuta’s native country had devolved into a civil war that claimed millions of lives and displaced millions more when he decided he had no choice but to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo and seek asylum in America.

He landed in Portland in 2003 and ended up in the city’s Oxford Street shelter, where the staff connected him with General Assistance vouchers that enabled him to get an apartment, buy food and take English classes while he waited for the federal government to grant him a permit to work.

Chikuta went on to earn associates, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, become an American citizen and get a job as an engineer at a hospital in Portland.

On Friday, he was among more than 100 people who turned out to oppose a proposed rule change that would prohibit hundreds of asylum seekers and some other immigrants from receiving General Assistance while waiting for their work permits.

“This is what the program was designed for – to help people with similar situations become self-sufficient,” he said.

Immigrants, attorneys, faith leaders and advocates for the poor urged the Department of Health and Human Services to withdraw the proposal, saying it is illegal, mean-spirited and morally wrong. They argued that it would cut off a life line for many people who arrive in Maine and apply for asylum – a process that can take years.

The rule change is being proposed by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. The governor has made welfare reform a priority in his three years in office, and a major theme of his re-election campaign.

The change would align Maine’s program with federal aid programs, which don’t provide benefits to immigrants until they have been in the country for five years, said DHHS spokesman John Martins. General Assistance is funded entirely by the state and local governments, and is based now only on financial need, not citizenship status. Cities or towns that want to provide the aid could continue to do so, without state money, Martins said.

Advocates estimate that as many as 1,000 immigrants who are seeking asylum in Maine would lose access to General Assistance.

Opponents of the rule change were bused from Portland and Lewiston, cities with significant immigrant populations, for a hearing Friday before DHHS officials in Augusta.

Many speakers noted the important role that immigrants will play in Maine’s economic future. Elected officials, immigrants and advocates said that attracting new Mainers is as important as keeping young people in the state.

“This proposed rule will result in increased homelessness and hunger for immigrant women and their children,” said Fatuma Hussein, the director of Somali Women of Maine. “We are the future of Maine. We are the face of Maine. The face of Maine is changing.”

No one spoke in favor of the change during the hearing, which lasted for more than three hours.

Two DHHS officials – Bethany Hamm, director of the Office for Family Independence, and David MacLean, the General Assistance program manager – listened as speaker after speaker urged the department to withdraw the rule proposal.

Before the hearing, Hamm said the rule change has been reviewed by Le-Page, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and the Attorney General’s Office, and all three have “signed off” on it. “We’re looking at an April effective date.”

The change would affect primarily new immigrants who are not yet citizens and are not refugees resettled here by the federal government. That includes people who have fled violence or political persecution and are seeking asylum in the United States, as well as visa holders and undocumented immigrants.

Many asylum seekers are educated and have work skills but are not eligible to take jobs until 180 days after they apply for asylum.

The state generally pays half of a community’s General Assistance costs, while the community pays the rest. Cities like Lewiston and Portland receive a higher reimbursement because the need is greater.

In fiscal year 2012, Maine communities provided a total of $17.5 million in General Assistance, $13.2 million of which came from the state budget, according to the DHHS. Portland provided $9.6 million in General Assistance to 4,376 individuals and families in the last fiscal year, with 90 percent of that money spent on food and shelter, according to the city.

Of the total spent, $2.4 million came from property taxpayers and $7.2 million came from the state.

Opponents of the change said Friday that they expect the attorney general to review the proposal and consider whether the change would be legal through the rule-making process. They have argued that the proposal violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Maine Human Rights Act because it singles out a group of people based on their immigration status.

“By design or not, it’s racist because it disproportionately affects people of color,” said Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland.

Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, who serves on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said a similar proposal was rejected by the Legislature last year. He suggested that the rule change is an end-run around the legislative process.

Without General Assistance, immigrants would turn to homeless shelters and food pantries. Several faith-based and nonprofit groups said they couldn’t possibly meet the need.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings