Gov. LePage’s main competition for re-election this year is U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, but based on Le-Page’s campaign so far, you might be forgiven for thinking he was running against Maine’s immigrants.

Radio ads and mailers from the Republican Governors Association hype his policies targeting “illegals,” and LePage himself has gone as far as to warn in hyperbolic language that eight “alien children,” refugees from violence in Central America, had been placed in Maine while their immigration cases were being adjudicated.

There are two main reasons why LePage is targeting immigrants.

 First, it’s a handy way of distracting voters from other issues in this election, including his own dismal economic record.

 Second, it motivates his base by appealing to a fundamental human weakness: the desire to scapegoat those who are different or unable to defend themselves and blame them for our problems.

NEWCOMERS’ PLIGHT POLITICIZED

This strategy wouldn’t work anywhere else in the country – even races in the Deep South aren’t seeing this kind of dated rhetoric in 2014 – but a three-way race means that LePage could potentially win just by motivating his base with these kinds of attacks and hoping that Michaud, a Democrat, and independent candidate Eliot Cutler split the rest of the vote.

It should also be noted that some of these ads are being funded, indirectly, by the Corrections Corp. of America, a private prison company that gave $25,000 to support Le-Page in 2010 and has already given $275,000 to the Republican Governors Association this year. The company runs detention centers and profits from our nation’s broken immigration system.

With the issue becoming so politicized, it’s easy to forget that LePage’s harsh words are referring to real people. This week I spoke to one of them – Adelaide B. Manirakiza, an immigrant from Burundi.

In her old life in her home country, Adelaide was a customs worker and advocate for HIV/AIDS care and prevention. When her husband, a military officer, was killed, however, she found herself and her family suddenly thrown into poverty and uncertainty.

“I realized that widows lost everything. We had no shelter, no electricity, no medicine, so I organized other widows in the army to fight for our rights,” Adelaide explained.

She took her fight to the highest levels of Burundi’s government and to the media there, and she won; the law was rewritten to provide survivors’ benefits for military widows and orphans. But the campaign left her branded as a “dangerous woman” and made her some powerful enemies. In 2007, her life was threatened and she was forced to flee the country.

FILLING VITAL ROLE

Eventually, she found herself in Maine, without documents and without her four daughters, but determined to build a new future. General Assistance (the emergency aid program that LePage is now willing to go to court to stop towns from providing to immigrants like Adelaide) was her lifeline. It helped her to secure food and shelter as she established her new life.

By the next year, she had a work authorization and had completed adult education courses. She found a job as a home care worker, filling an absolutely vital role in our rapidly aging state. In 2009, her daughters were able to join her in Maine.

It wasn’t easy to care for a family in an unfamiliar country while making just over the minimum wage (and LePage’s veto of a minimum-wage increase last year hasn’t helped).

Adelaide struggled to pay rent and keep her car running and occasionally relied on public assistance and charities in order to afford food and health care, but she did an incredible job of raising her kids. All four of her daughters are now in college, studying biomedical engineering, accounting, political science and international development, respectively.

BUILDING A BETTER MAINE

In building a better life for herself, Adelaide has helped to build a better future for Maine. In her job, she fills a key societal role, and her children are dedicated, educated young Mainers who will continue to make a difference.

Immigrants who cross continents and oceans to find their way here are, by necessity, motivated, creative and entrepreneurial. Their work and energy is making Maine a better place for all of us to live. They deserve some help when they need it to get on their feet, and they deserve our appreciation for contributing far more than they receive.

Above all, they deserve to be treated as real people, not as scapegoats or the targets of vicious attack ads.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

writebacktomike@gmail.com

Twitter: @miketipping