December 10, 2019
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Was LePage right to suggest immigrants pose a public health threat in Maine?

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage addresses the chamber during the 2015 State of the State address on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The consensus among public health experts regarding Gov. Paul LePage’s comments linking illegal immigrants to the spread of infectious diseases during his State of the State address on Tuesday is that they have seen no data to back up his claims.

Officials from the LePage administration have provided no substantiation for the comments and have not responded since Wednesday to the Bangor Daily News’ requests for data and comment on the matter.

Here’s what the governor said:

“When a refugee comes here from a foreign country, they get a medical assessment, and we know their health. But when they come here illegally, they don’t get medical assessments. And one thing that we don’t want to see is the uptick of hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis. But it is here. We are dealing with it. And it is very costly. So if nothing else, they should be getting a medical assessment when they get here.”

The point he was trying to make:

LePage was talking about the prioritization of taxpayer dollars and arguing that public funds shouldn’t be spent on services for people who are in Maine illegally. The comments above were made off the cuff; they were not included in LePage’s prepared speech as it was given to reporters Tuesday and do not appear in the version of the speech posted on LePage’s website.

LePage has made several attempts to deny taxpayer-funded social services to what he calls “illegals” or “illegal aliens.” He led an effort to eliminate MaineCare for undocumented asylum seekers in his first biennial budget, has ordered towns and cities to deny General Assistance to undocumented immigrants and this year is proposing cutting their food supplements and cash benefits.

“I believe that my responsibility as your governor is No. 1 to Maine residents first and everyone else second,” said LePage during the speech.

What the advocates say:

Megan Hannan, executive director of the Frannie Peabody Center: The center serves more than 450 clients who have HIV, about 90 of whom Hannan classifies as immigrants because they have come to the United States in the past few years. They include both refugees and asylum seekers. In the current year, the state spent $37,000 for HIV testing and prevention and another $30,000 for other supports for AIDS patients, according to Hannan. The majority of Hannan’s clients are on MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. However, none of the asylum seekers are because it’s illegal. Most of them have no insurance, and their treatment is covered by the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS program.

“Some of these people, we don’t have their health status when they come to Maine. That’s true,” said Hannan. “But the people [LePage] is calling illegals are in fact legal, and they’re not the cause of the increases of those diseases.”

Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners: “Most of the people he was talking about when he said illegal aliens are people who are seeking asylum here in Maine,” Merrill said. “Those people are actually here lawfully with documentation. … A refugee gets their status before they leave their homeland, and there is in fact a medical screening process. Asylum seekers come here lawfully, often on a visa. They have to apply for asylum, then wait 180 days to get a work permit. Then they often wait years to be granted refugee status. … It’s just not accurate to call them illegal aliens.”

Tina Pettingill, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association: “We think that any kind of public health efforts should be based in data and science, and we have not seen data to support [LePage’s] claims,” Pettingill said.

What national conservatives say:

Given that LePage’s administration has not responded in more than two days to questions raised by his remarks, there’s no clear way to ascertain their origin. However, the governor’s suggestion that undocumented immigrants pose a public safety threat echoes statements made this week by other national Republican leaders.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, on the Matt Murphy radio show: “I don’t think there is any health care professional who has examined the fact, who can honestly say that Americans have not died because of the diseases brought into America by illegal aliens who are not property health care screened as lawful immigrants are,” Brooks said. “It might be the enterovirus that has a heavy presence in Central and South America that has caused deaths of American children over the past six to nine months. It might be the measles outbreak. There are any number of things.”

Rush Limbaugh: The conservative talk radio host has stated repeatedly in recent days that a national measles outbreak is linked to U.S. immigration policy.

Some data:

A 2013 summary of reportable infectious diseases in Maine, generated by the Maine Center for Disease Control, appears to have some of the most recent data available. It shows that incidents of HIV were flat or on a slight decrease between 2009 and 2013, and that there was a total of 39 reported cases in Maine in 2013. Hannan, citing a monthly state report from December that lists preliminary infectious disease counts, said there were 60 new HIV cases documented in 2014 The report did not list the patients’ countries of origin.

Active tuberculosis cases were higher in 2012 and 2013 than they had been since 2009, with 15 reported cases in 2013. There were less than 10 new cases reported in 2014, according to Hannan’s data. The CDC also tracks latent cases, which means the tuberculosis bacteria is present but the patient shows no symptoms (untreated latent tuberculosis is a precursor to full-blown tuberculosis in up to 10 percent of cases). There were 433 latent cases recorded in 2013, up from 398 in 2012. The CDC report also includes the country of birth for people recorded to have latent tuberculosis. The top countries of origin for latent tuberculosis cases were Angola (41), Burundi (43), Congo (51), Iraq (41), Rwanda (38), Somalia (53) and the United States (78). The 2013 CDC report contains no information about how long the patients had been in Maine before their diagnosis.

There were eight cases of acute hepatitis C — meaning the patients had pronounced symptoms — in both 2012 and 2013. That number jumped dramatically in 2014 to about 30 in 2014. There was a steadily growing number of “past or present” hepatitis C reports (people with the disease but who show no symptoms) between 2010 and 2013, with 1,265 cases in 2013. The report did not include data for the patients’ countries of origin.

Department of Health and Human Services spokesman David Sorensen said Friday afternoon that a 2014 overview report about infectious diseases in Maine is expected to be released in March.

Some of the questions not answered by the LePage administration this week:

— Can the administration expand on or provide context for what the governor meant in his State of the State speech comments about immigrants?

— Who is the governor talking about when he talks about “illegal aliens”? In addition to people who arrived in the U.S. illegally, is he also talking about asylum seekers who are awaiting federal documentation? What are the latest numbers on this front?

— What data is there to show that increases in hepatitis C and HIV cases in Maine are caused by the immigrant population?

— The governor referenced the expensive financial cost. Can he provide details about the scope of the financial burden and where it is paid?

— How many vacant positions are there at the Maine Center for Disease Control, and do those vacancies make it more difficult to track who might be responsible for the spread of infectious diseases?

 



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