AUGUSTA – In one of his first acts in office, Republican Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order Thursday allowing officials in state agencies to question people about their immigration status.

LePage’s order rescinded a previous one by Gov. John Baldacci that prohibited Maine state workers from making such inquiries.

It says the previous order “may have created the impression that Maine was a so-called ‘sanctuary state’ for those who are in the United States without lawful status.”

LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the governor wanted to send a message to those who have heard it’s easy for illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and social services in Maine.

The move is being criticized by immigration rights groups, civil libertarians and other advocates.

In 2004, Baldacci prohibited state employees from asking about or disclosing a person’s immigration status unless required by law to do so. His order also barred law enforcement officials from inquiring about immigration status unless they were investigating or prosecuting another crime.

In 2005, he amended the portion of the order covering law enforcement officers, allowing them to make such inquiries at any time.

LePage’s order, in effect, changes only the requirements on state workers.

“The governor made welfare reform a large part of his campaign and this is something we can do in one day and it sends the message that Maine’s welfare programs are targeted toward Maine people,” Demeritt said. “People are fed up with the idea that people are coming to our state from elsewhere, be it Pennsylvania or anywhere. Our generosity can only go so far.”

The move, which fulfills a longstanding goal of Maine’s Republican base to end Maine’s status as a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants, was critized by representatives from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and others who said it sends a destructive anti-immigrant message.

“I can’t say that it’s totally unexpected based on some of the comments he made during his campaign, but nonetheless it’s very disappointing that he has done that,” said Marc Mutty, public affairs director for the Diocese of Portland and a member of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the civil liberties union and member of the rights coalition, said she hoped this was not the first step in an “anti-freedom agenda.”

“It doesn’t matter where you are born, we’re all human and we’re responsible for one another,” Bellows said. “We certainly hope that this isn’t a suggestion of a witch hunt, of targeting and tracking down immigrants to verify immigration status. That would certainly be very scary for new Mainers and it would have drastic safety consequences to our community while wasting precious (law enforcement) resources.”

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the former Cumberland County sheriff, said even if there is no actual change in what law enforcement is allowed to do, LePage’s first-day order sends a distinct message.

“It’s going to send real ripples through the immigrant community, because this entire issue of local law enforcement and immigration policy has a real chilling effect in those families,” he said. “They perceive it as we would consciously hunt them down, and the truth of the matter is (that) many of them are here lawfully as refugees.”

LePage said he was simply requiring law enforcement and state workers to cooperate with federal agencies.

“If they are undocumented we want to take care of the problem,” he said. “We have got many fiscal issues and I’m intending to take care of Maine first. I know of a few (illegal immigrants) right now, so we may not have many, but we have a few.”

Demeritt said the administration hoped to find a fiscal savings in stricter immigration enforcement, particularly in the area of social services, but he did not have a specific estimate.

LePage also signed an executive order extending Baldacci’s hiring freeze on state workers until the end of the calendar year. The order also voided any waivers authorizing hires issued by Baldacci for positions that are currently unfilled.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.