The economic health of Maine and its largest city depends on the work of the immigrant population, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Monday.

Brennan held a news conference outside City Hall to voice support for a bill that would make asylum seekers eligible for General Assistance.

General Assistance, an aid program that provides vouchers for basic needs such as housing and food, fills a gap for asylum seekers, who cannot work for at least six months under federal immigration rules.

Gov. Paul LePage announced last summer that the state would stop reimbursing towns and cities for a portion of the aid they give to certain noncitizens, including asylum seekers.

Portland and Westbrook sued the state over that decision, but last week a Superior Court judge ruled that the state can withhold the funding.

Brennan said Monday that would leave more than 900 people in Portland facing homelessness next month, unless the city decides to continue the aid without state funds.

Brennan said that Portland and the state, whose population is getting older and stagnating in size, depend on the young immigrant workforce for economic growth.

Brennan gathered a group of community leaders and immigrants at the news conference Monday to make his point.

Tae Chong, a business adviser for Coastal Enterprises Inc., said half the immigrants who come to Maine have college degrees, if not more education. He said their median age is 27, more than 15 years younger than the state’s. If no immigrants came to Portland in the past 13 years, he said, the population would have dropped by 5,000 people.

“We have an incredibly young, dynamic, hardworking population,” said Chong, who called immigrants “absolutely critical” to the future of the state.

Aimee Nyirakanyana, a mother of six who fled Rwanda, spent a month at a shelter in Portland before General Assistance enabled her to get an apartment.

After being granted asylum, she worked at a restaurant for three months before starting her own business, Ebenezer African Grocery Store on Forest Avenue.

She said she credits General Assistance for “who I am today.”

Brennan said the bill, which legislators will discuss Tuesday, represents a defining moment for “what the future of the state of Maine is going to look like.”

David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said LePage earmarked the money that would be saved from the limit on General Assistance eligibility for use for those on waiting lists for MaineCare, but the Legislature didn’t support that plan.

“They are quite literally choosing illegal aliens over elderly and disabled Mainers,” he said.

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

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