LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — In the whitest U.S. state, thousands of miles from the Mexican border, the debate over immigration is becoming a central issue in one of the nation’s most closely watched governor’s races.
With its close-knit communities and a practice of labeling non-natives as “from away,” Mainers have a reputation for being insular. But they have also embraced the need for immigrants as the state’s population ages and declines.
So Republican Gov. Paul LePage roiled the cultural waters when he criticized the federal government’s placement of eight immigrant children in Maine without advising him.
He said Monday that the federal government was ducking its responsibility by leaving the border unprotected and pushing the burden onto states. He said he worries about the financial impact if more children are placed in the state.
“If we have eight kids in the state right now and if there are any state dollars going there, there are eight Mainers not getting services,” he said during a visit to a homeless shelter in Lewiston. “There’s not an endless pot of money up there.”
Since January, more than 30,000 children, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have crossed the nation’s southern border illegally and have been placed with sponsors throughout the country. The eight minors in Maine are a fraction of the thousands sent to states including New York, California and Florida.
The federal government didn’t respond to questions regarding its policy to notify states about the placement of unaccompanied children, and other experts didn’t have that information.
The issue has risen to the forefront of races for governor in border states, like Arizona. It dominated a Republican gubernatorial debate there last week, in which the candidates outlined ideas including deployment of National Guard troops and more employer sanctions.
But the issue has also crept into politics far from the southern border.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s offer to temporarily house children at two bases has drawn both praise and attacks from the candidates seeking to fill the Democrat’s seat.
In Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s rejection of a federal request to house as many as 2,000 minors at a mostly vacant state property has left him vulnerable to criticism from Republican contenders, who have said the decision was made too quickly and was out of character.
In Maine, LePage’s re-election campaign has attacked his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, for not taking a clear stand on whether he would agree to shelter children in Maine and sought to link Michaud’s views with Patrick’s when the two campaigned together in Maine last week.
LePage’s campaign is touting his policies on immigration, including a recent directive that cities and towns not provide welfare benefits to those who can’t prove they are living in the country legally.
Michaud’s campaign said last week that LePage is using the issue merely to rally his political base this November. Michaud said that the decision to house children in Maine would depend on a number of factors, including the cost and what sites are available.
“(LePage’s) entire tactic is governing by division,” Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Friday. “He has tried very hard to pit one community in Maine against another.”
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler said that if a child’s family is already in the state, he supports reuniting them, but he warned that Maine would need federal assistance if asked to accommodate large numbers of children.
Immigration advocates say LePage could hurt Maine’s reputation as a welcoming home for immigrants.
“It’s unfortunate that the governor makes a statement like that and it gets more publicity than all the positive things that people are doing,” said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Maine.
Maine, whose population of 1.3 million is about 94 percent white, is home to an estimated 55,000 immigrants and relies heavily on migrant workers for its blueberry harvest every August.
An influx of Somali refugees to Lewiston, a former industrial city that has fallen into decline, ignited tensions between newcomers and natives in the early 2000s. But Somalis’ small businesses have since been praised for helping revitalization efforts.
Today, immigrants fleeing violence in Central Africa are drawn to Maine in part because of its safe communities and wealth of faith-based organizations that provide assistance, Roche said.
Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin