By Ramona du Houx
Gov. Paul LePage went off script during his Feb. 3 State of the State address and continued his unfounded attacks on immigrants legally living in Maine.
"I came to America in 2010 because of the persecution my family faced in Burundi where I was a judge. Maine was a welcoming and safe place—where I now work and serve my community," said Philemon Dushimire, Senior Advisor of the Burundi Community Association of Maine. "Gov. LePage's comments are a bitter reminder of the type of scare tactics and dehumanization many asylum seekers like me faced before coming to this land of the free. I never thought I would hear this kind of venomous language from our leaders in Maine."
During his speech LePage tried to stoke fear through his incorrect and offensive comments about immigrants, which he used as a justification for cutting vital support for legal residents in Maine who are seeking asylum.
“But this is the problem with some of the illegals that are here today. When a refugee comes here from a foreign country, they get a medical assessment and we know their health. But when they are here illegally, they don’t get medical assessments," said LePage. "And one thing that we don’t want to see is the uptick in hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis, but it is here. We are dealing with it. And it is very costly.”
This statement is misleading, illogical and mean-spirited. Both the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 8 and the Portland Press Herald on Feb. 11 wrote that the data does not support the governor’s rhetoric.
“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," reported the BDN.
The governor is using the fear of infectious disease as a wedge to make others unnecessarily fearful of Maine’s immigrant community in order to draw support for his budgetary priorities.
Further, the majority of people who would be impacted by the cuts to vital services proposed in the governor’s state budget are immigrants seeking asylum who are lawfully residing in Maine. They are not here illegally.
Last winter, more than 200 people testified in opposition to these cuts during a Department of Health and Human Services hearing on an administrative rule to eliminate General Assistance for some immigrants. LePage and his administration were provided with documentation and data showing who is impacted and explaining the legal process people seeking asylum go through when they come to America. That he continues to misrepresent who is affected by the cuts is a willful misrepresentation of the facts.
Like Dushimire, individuals and families seeking asylum legally come to our country to escape violence and persecution. Once they begin the process of applying for asylum, individuals must wait at least 180 days for work authorization from the federal government. While they wait, General Assistance is a necessary safety net. We all know that the charities, churches, and food pantries across Maine are working at full capacity to help those living in poverty in our communities. Those programs and our local municipalities cannot afford to replace what LePage is trying to cut.
“New Mainers who are lawfully seeking asylum in our country come to ILAP for help with the legal process, which is lengthy and complex. They are eager to work and contribute to their communities but need temporary help from General Assistance in order to eat and have shelter while they wait for permission to work. It is important that discussions around these issues are based on facts, as we assess the policies before the legislature this year," commented Sue Roche, Executive Director of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
Taking assistance away from asylum seekers will push them into homeless shelters, which will not improve public health efforts. In fact, it would have the opposite effect.
If the administration is truly concerned about the transmission of communicable diseases, then improving access to medical screening and treatment for all Mainers should be a priority. In contrast, three years ago the governor eliminated MaineCare for asylum seekers and other immigrants who are lawfully present in our state.
In addition, key positions in our public health system have been left unfilled under this administration—yet another indicator that the governor’s statements about public health are not based on a true concern for the health of Maine people.
Ensuring that our state’s public health system is fully staffed and increasing access to health care are the right solutions if the spread of disease is truly the administration’s concern.