AUGUSTA, Maine — As promised, Gov. Paul LePage dived into work on his first day in office and promptly sparked a political fracas by rescinding a policy that the new administration contends painted Maine as a “sanctuary state” for illegal immigrants.
LePage was asked during a brief exchange with reporters what prompted his decision to issue the order on his first day. Echoing comments heard throughout the campaign, LePage suggested that the order was part of his effort to make sure welfare and social service programs are not going to non-Mainers.
“We have got many fiscal issues, and I am intending to take care of Mainers first,” LePage said. Asked whether there was a big problem with undocumented immigrants receiving unwarranted benefits, the Republican replied: “I know of a few right now. We may not have many, but we have a few.”
The short, broadly worded executive order does not mention specific agencies. But administration officials acknowledged that the primary target was the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for managing the myriad social service programs offered to both Maine residents and immigrants.
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the order is intended to send a message both to state employees and to undocumented immigrants that Maine plans to make sure people who apply for state or federal benefits are eligible to receive them and in the country legally.
“There is a strong impression that Maine is a state that, in the past, has looked the other way on immigration status,” Demeritt said.
But civil libertarians contend there is no proof that undocumented immigrants are receiving special treatment in Maine. They also worry that the new policy will have a chilling effect on legal immigrants who might be hesitant to apply for benefits for which they are eligible.
“We’re surprised that the governor’s first action has nothing to do with our economy and, instead, appears to be targeting immigrants and people of color,” said Shenna Bellows with the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “We hope this isn’t the first step in an anti-freedom agenda.”
LePage’s executive order effectively rescinds a 2004 order signed by Gov. John Baldacci that barred state officials from asking about immigration status — or sharing that information — except in certain circumstances, including investigations into illegal activity. In 2005, Baldacci amended the order to allow law enforcement officers more leeway in inquiring about a person’s immigration status.
The ban under Baldacci did not apply to judges, who regularly ask defendants where they were born and about their immigration status.
There was some disagreement Thursday on how LePage’s directive would affect social services provided by DHHS.
Dan Billings, LePage’s legal counsel, said the new order effectively makes clear that state employees or officials can comply with federal requests for information about an individual’s immigration status.
“It’s not telling state officials that they need to change anything,” Billings said. “But if the information is sought, they would no longer be banned from providing it.”
But Bellows with the MCLU said Baldacci had good reason for prohibiting DHHS employees from asking about immigration status.
“And the reason, in part, is you don’t want to make immigrant families afraid to approach the hospital or the school or the food pantry to get assistance for their children and their families in their time of need,” Bellows said.
Democratic House Minority Leader Emily Cain also criticized the executive order and its timing.
“I’m surprised that on Day 1 the governor felt the need to rescind executive orders which, to my knowledge, had not caused any problems in the state of Maine,” said Cain, D-Orono. “There is not even a commissioner in place in the Department of Health and Human Services.”
The governor on Thursday also issued a separate order that continues a hiring freeze in state government that had been issued by Baldacci because of the ongoing state revenue shortfall.
BDN staff writer Judy Harrison and The Associated Press contributed to this report.