Maine gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage arrives Friday at the Maine GOP Unity Rally in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — While Republicans are courting immigrant support ahead of the fall elections, former Gov. Paul LePage has been careful to say that he only supports immigrants who are here legally.

And LePage made it clear during an interview Friday that he does not want the state to support asylum seekers. If re-elected, he said, he would once again seek to take away their eligibility for state assistance to pay for food, shelter and other needs while they wait for federal authorization to work.

“No,” LePage said when asked by the Press Herald if he believes asylum seekers are here legally. “They didn’t go through Ellis Island. They don’t have paperwork.”

In fact, asylum seekers have the right to remain in the country while they seek asylee status, a process that can take more than a year and ultimately requires proof that they are escaping violence or persecution.

“Someone in the asylum process is legally in the U.S. with a pending asylum application,” said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project of Maine, a nonprofit that provides free legal aid to asylum seekers.

Federal law allows noncitizens to file for asylum within one year of entering the United States, regardless of how they arrived in the country. Many asylum seekers in Maine presented themselves at a U.S. border before being allowed to enter while they pursue their claims.


Staff members for the Maine Republican Party drum up support Friday prior to the start of the GOP Unity Rally in Lewiston.

Although they are allowed to remain, federal law prohibits asylum seekers from receiving legal work permits for at least six months after they apply. And many asylum seekers wait years for interviews with immigration officials because of a growing national backlog.

“Individuals who are applying for asylum after being apprehended at the border are following a lawful process, set up by our government, to apply for asylum protection in the United States,” said Roche. “This can involve a lengthy process in immigration court, with significant court backlogs that delay adjudication of their applications and eligibility for work authorization through no fault of their own.”

And, while considered lawfully present, their eligibility for public assistance programs varies by program and by state.

LePage was also direct when asked if would renew his previous efforts to eliminate their eligibility to receive General Assistance, a safety net program paid for mostly by the state.

“Yes,” he said.

LePage, who is running to unseat Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in November, made the comments in an interview after a “GOP Unity Rally” in Lewiston on Friday. Speakers at the event included LePage, Maine Republican Party chairwoman Demi Kouzounas, 1st Congressional District candidate Ed Thelander, 2nd Congressional District Candidate Bruce Poliquin and legislative Republicans.


Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, right, arrives Friday at the GOP Unity Rally in Lewiston.

Republicans made clear Friday they believe their path to victory in November is to consistently blame Democrats, both here and nationally, for historic inflation and rising prices at the gas pump and grocery stores.

Poliquin said it would be important to speak to independents, who comprise one-third of Maine’s electorate. “We need to hug our independents,” he said during the rally.

Liz Caruso, who lost the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary after attacking Poliquin as a career politician and Wall Street investor who doesn’t live in the district, called on her supporters to unite behind Poliquin.

“As Republicans, we face off in primaries to hone our messages and get our team into fighting shape,” Caruso said. “But when the primaries are over, we come together as a unified force, because whatever differences we have between us, they are nothing compared to the outrageous policies and beliefs of today’s Democratic Party.”

Kouzounas sought to prepare the party for the “fight to come” and warned that the dark money that flowed into the Cumberland County district attorney’s race from Democratic donor George Soros was a sign of things to come. She said Republicans need “to run scared,” as though they are 10 points behind, she said.

“This is a wake-up call,” she said.


Misha Linnehan, spokesperson for the Maine Democratic Party, questioned the display of unity among Republicans. She cited LePage’s repeated criticisms of the state’s decision – approved by Republicans – to provide $850 checks to qualifying taxpayers to help ease the pain of inflation.

Linnehan also said that Maine’s economy has grown the 11th fastest in the nation and that the Mills administration and Democratic-controlled Legislature have doubled the rainy day fund and “delivered one of the strongest inflation relief measures in the country.”

“There is a reason Paul LePage left office as one of the least popular governors in the country,” Linnehan said. “As governor, LePage was an embarrassment who ruled by threat, insult, and chaos, pushing failed policies that hurt Maine’s families, economy, and environment, and fighting with Mainers of all stripes along the way.”

During his remarks at the rally, LePage noted that he is a third-generation immigrant.

“We are all immigrants in this country,” he said. “As long as we come here legally and do it right, we are one big happy family.”

Those remarks echoed a speech he made in Portland in April when Republicans opened up a multicultural community center on Munjoy Hill with great fanfare.


At the time, LePage said “I endorse and I love refugees,” even though as governor he sought to end Maine’s participation in the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.

His comments about asylum seekers afterward show that, despite the party’s outreach to immigrants, LePage’s policy positions haven’t  changed much.

As governor, LePage repeatedly worked to cut the state’s social safety net, including withholding General Assistance payments to Portland for providing assistance to asylum seekers.

As of last week, the city was using General Assistance funding to house about 1,700 homeless people on a nightly basis. About 1,200 of those people were members of families, primarily of asylum seekers who have flowed into the city in recent months.

Portland officials did not respond to requests for interviews Friday afternoon.

While governor, LePage was taken to court over his decision to withhold General Assistance funding from Portland. He ultimately prevailed when a judge ruled that asylum seekers could not receive public assistance unless the state passed a law that explicitly made them eligible. Maine did not have such a law at the time, but the Legislature passed such a bill in 2015 in response to the court ruling.


LePage was expected to veto it and there did not appear to be enough votes to override him. But LePage failed to issue the veto within the required time frame and the bill became law. His administration then took a narrow interpretation of the law, excluding some asylum seekers.

Republicans launched a statewide petition effort to overturn the law, but later abandoned the effort.

Mills, meanwhile, took action to restore General Assistance to more asylum seekers in response to a 2019 influx of arrivals. Her office did not respond to a request for Mills’ response to LePage’s comments. She said the arrival of asylum seekers, many of whom are highly skilled and trained, was an opportunity for the state to “welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy.”

Suheir Alaskari, chairwoman of the Republicans’ multicultural center, referred all questions about LePage’s position on asylum seekers to party officials.

During the unity rally on Friday, Alaskari called on Republicans to open their hearts and businesses to immigrants, including people fleeing personal, political and religious persecution. And she blamed policymakers for not having a plan to house, educate or employ those who are coming to the state.

“When immigrants, of course, wait for more than one year to get their work permit, we are taking away their freedom,” she said. “Open your hearts for immigrants. Open your businesses to them and they are ready to contribute. You will be amazed at how similar their values and norms are to your own.”

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