A visit by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin to support the Democratic gubernatorial candidacy of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has again raised the issue of illegal immigration in the Blaine House campaign.
Only this time, the flash point is more than 2,000 miles away along the United States-Mexican border, where droves of unaccompanied children from Central America are being smuggled at an alarming rate.
On Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage announced that eight of these “unaccompanied alien children” have been placed in Maine without his knowledge. LePage said he was informed during a conference call with White House officials.
“I only learned that children have been placed in Maine after I asked the question,” LePage said in a written statement, noting that the White House did not provide additional information.
“The failure of Congress and the president to address our border issues should not result in more of a financial burden on Maine people,” LePage said. “We cannot become a state that encourages illegal immigration. We simply cannot afford it.”
This year, the U.S. government estimates that 60,000 children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras will have entered the U.S. illegally to escape violence or to find family members already living here.
They are crossing the border through human smuggling networks, and many have become victims of violent crime and sexual abuse along the way, according to the White House.
The Obama administration has requested $3.7 billion in emergency extra funding for immigration courts and detention facilities, among other strategies, but the proposal got a cool reception from Congress.
A 2008 law enacted under President George W. Bush requires that unaccompanied youths from countries other than Mexico or Canada be put through deportation proceedings. Children from Canada and Mexico, in most cases, are turned away immediately.
The Associated Press reported that until those proceedings take place – which could be years, given a 350,000-case backlog – children must be held in the least restrictive environment possible. There are three temporary shelters, in California, Texas and Oklahoma, with a capacity of nearly 3,000 children. The federal government is paying to run the shelters.
The law is putting a strain on border officials. In previous years, only a few thousand unaccompanied children would arrive in the U.S. This year that number has skyrocketed, filling immigration detention centers and prompting officials to seek alternative arrangements.
The Obama administration is asking states to provide temporary shelter, food and medicine – at the federal government’s expense – until the children can be processed by immigration officials.
Citing a high call volume, officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which is overseeing the relocation effort, could not say Tuesday whether any facilities in Maine are being considered for temporary shelter.
Potential sites are being identified by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. General Services Administration, and are being evaluated by a Unified Coordination Group in partnership with state and local officials, said Kenneth Wolfe, the Administration for Children and Families’ deputy director of public affairs.
“While only a few facilities will ultimately be selected, a wide range of facilities are being identified and evaluated to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children,” Wolfe said in an email. “Facilities will be announced when they are identified as viable options.”
Patrick, a Democrat, is one of the few governors embracing the request. Republican governors, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former presidential candidate, are criticizing the administration’s border policy.
While Perry plans to send 1,000 National Guard troops over the next month to the border, Patrick has agreed to provide temporary housing for up to 1,000 children in a facility that would be controlled and funded by the federal government. The average stay of each child would be 35 days, according to a statement on his website.
The office of Shumlin, a Democrat who campaigned in Maine for Michaud on Monday, told the Burlington Free Press last week that he is looking for sites in Vermont to accommodate the administration’s request.
During a rally Monday in support of Michaud, Democrats in Saco gave Patrick a standing ovation when Nancy Stolberg, a former Patrick staffer who now lives in Maine, said she was proud of the governor for accepting the children.
Michaud, however, said in a written statement Tuesday that if a site was selected in Maine, he would question its appropriateness, costs and who would be responsible for it.
“I respect the decision that Gov. Patrick has made,” Michaud said. “It’s a decision of conscience that each governor and state must make on their own.”
Independent Eliot Cutler, who believes Maine should be recruiting young, skilled and educated immigrants, said in a written statement that he would support reuniting unaccompanied children with family members who are already living here.
“In the event we are asked to accommodate children in Maine, sufficient and continuing federal responsibility and resources would be both necessary and non-negotiable,” said Cutler, who blamed Congress for failing to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
Patrick has faced criticism in Massachusetts for his willingness to accept the children, including from members of his own party, while other governors – Republican and Democrats alike – have resisted the White House’s request.
After Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman complained that the federal government sent 200 unaccompanied children to his state without notifying him, the Republican Governors Association sent an email alert to its members.
Democratic governors in Maryland and Connecticut also have objected to proposals to house children at certain facilities in their states.
In Maine, Republicans were quick to use Patrick’s and Shumlin’s visit to tie Michaud to stances on illegal immigrants.
LePage has made welfare reform a key issue in his first term and his re-election campaign. One of his first actions as governor was to issue an executive order allowing state officials to ask about people’s immigration status when they seek assistance.
More recently, LePage told municipalities that the state would not reimburse them for providing General Assistance, which pays for emergency food, shelter and other needs, to “illegal aliens,” even though many arrive in the U.S. on valid visas that have expired while they await rulings on their asylum applications.
LePage’s General Assistance policy, however, was deemed unconstitutional by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat.
The Maine Municipal Association has filed a lawsuit to get clarity from the courts. Portland and Westbrook have signed on to the lawsuit, and on Monday, South Portland city councilors voted unanimously to continue providing the assistance.
Cutler thinks General Assistance should be granted to undocumented immigrants “in some cases,” including for asylum seekers whose applications are still pending.
In June, Michaud criticized LePage for oversimplifying a complex matter, but he did not state his position on whether undocumented immigrants should receive General Assistance. On Tuesday, he suggested they should be eligible.
In a written statement, Michaud said, “We cannot afford to paint with such a broad brush on this topic, which is why I not only oppose the governor’s proposed changes to (General Assistance) – since those changes would take these benefits away from asylum seekers and their children who are here legally but are just waiting for their paperwork – but I also oppose how he is going about instituting these changes.”