More Mainers view immigrants as strengthening rather than burdening the state, but residents are divided along political and regional lines on immigration questions involving welfare, public health – and Donald Trump.

In a statewide Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Poll, 48 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “immigrants today strengthen our state because of their hard work and talents,” compared to 32 percent who believed immigrants “are a burden … because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” Not surprisingly, however, Democrats and Republicans had starkly different responses to the questions and to controversial statements on immigration made by Trump and Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine’s views on immigrants

For instance, only 14 percent of registered Democrats agreed that immigrants posed “a burden” to the state compared to 53 percent of registered Republicans and 33 percent of independents. The numbers were even more lopsided when poll participants were asked about Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., with only 11 percent of Democrats supporting the idea but 54 percent of Republicans agreeing with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

“Until we can be more assured,” Harrison resident Brian Spaulding, 77, said in explaining his support for Trump’s controversial ban and belief that refugees need to be more thoroughly vetted for ties to terrorism. “Like has been said many times, it only takes one.”

VIEWS ON IMMIGRATION COMPLEX

Roughly 3.5 percent of Maine’s population – or an estimated 47,129 people – were born outside the United States, according U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2010 to 2014. Just over 95 percent of the state’s population is white, making Maine one of the least-diverse states in the country.

The phone survey of more than 600 people showed that Mainers’ views on immigration are complex and, much like the national political scene, appear to be influenced by their party affiliation, age and income levels. The poll, which was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, has a margin of error of 4 percent.

Poll-takers over age 50, for instance, were more likely than younger respondents to believe immigrants receive “too much” public assistance and to be concerned about immigrants bringing infectious diseases to Maine – an assertion made repeatedly by LePage, although public health records do not support his claim. And Mainers earning more than $100,000 a year were significantly more likely – by a margin of 59 percent to 40 percent – to regard immigrants as strengthening Maine than those earning less than $30,000 a year.

Poll respondent Jeff Lyons of Portland said he has seen a positive impact from the immigrants living in his city.

“In general, diversity is an asset and specifically the immigrants involved in local politics in Portland are bringing good ideas and energy,” Lyons said.

Kat Dumais, a Lewiston resident who has seen the impact of the influx of Somali refugees on the city, was among the plurality of people who believe immigrants “strengthen” the state. Dumais added that she believes “everyone needs a step up.”

“What I have seen is they are opening their own businesses, they are renting plots to garden, they are doing their very, very best to teach their children to be a part of the community,” Dumais said. “And I am very impressed with them.”

Immigration remains a sticky issue in the Lewiston area, however, a fact reflected in the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram Poll.

While just 28 percent of respondents from more urbanized southern Maine viewed immigrants as posing a burden, that figure rose to 42 percent for the central Maine region that includes the Lewiston-Auburn area. Central Maine also had the highest proportion of respondents, or 49 percent, who believed immigrants received “too much assistance,” compared to 39 percent in northern Maine and 43 percent in southern Maine.

Catherine Besteman, a professor of anthropology at Colby College not involved in the poll, said she was not necessarily surprised by the divided views but was personally disappointed by negative impressions she blamed on a political climate in which “facts don’t seem to have a lot of resonance.”

Besteman has extensively studied the influx of Somali refugees to the Lewiston area during the past 15 years. For her part, Besteman said she believes Lewiston is “a great success story,” although the conversation and occasional conflicts continue.

“It’s a community now,” Besteman said of the new Lewiston. “They are citizens and are contributing members of society, so I think the conversation is beginning to shift to more about what the community should look like, should sound like and be like. And those are conversations that any community should have.”

WELFARE AN ISSUE

On the issue of welfare, 43 percent said they believe immigrants are receiving too much public assistance, compared to just 7 percent who responded that immigrants do not receive enough government help. Nearly one-third were unsure while 19 percent believed Maine’s immigrant community was receiving “about the right amount” of assistance.

It’s an issue that burst into the political arena two years ago when the LePage administration sought to halt the flow of state General Assistance dollars to non-citizens, with some success in both the courts and the Legislature.

The vast majority of asylum seekers in Maine arrive in the U.S. on student, work or visitation visas that expire within six months. They then have an additional six months to file an asylum application before facing deportation. Federal law also prohibits asylum seekers from receiving legal work permits for at least six months after they apply.

Claude Rwaganje, who moved to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo 20 years ago and now runs a financial literacy program for immigrants, was disappointed that 32 percent of respondents believed immigrants posed a “burden” on the state and about the attitudes toward welfare.

“That is political and doesn’t have anything to do with reality,” said Rwaganje, whose nonprofit Community Financial Literacy helps immigrants with everything from setting up a bank account and building credit to the basics of small-business management.

While some asylum seekers are forced to seek welfare while they await work papers or asylee status, Rwaganje said that assistance is small compared to the economic benefits those immigrants create when they start small businesses or get involved in their communities. Maine is in a “demographic winter” as the population ages and young families leave the state for opportunities elsewhere – a trend that would be even more stark if it weren’t for immigrants, he said.

“Immigrants are making a huge impact on our economy,” Rwaganje said.

TRUMP AND LePAGE

More than one half of respondents, or 51 percent, said they would “somewhat oppose” or “strongly oppose” Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. in response to concerns about Islamic terrorism. Of the remaining respondents, 30 percent supported the idea while roughly 20 percent were neutral or unsure.

Mainers appear utterly divided, however, on whether they believe their governor’s warnings that immigrants are bringing infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis or HIV into the state.

Forty-six percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat concerned about the issue, while 53 percent were either “not very” or “not at all concerned” about the prospect. Responses were nearly equally distributed among the four choices.

LePage has made such statements repeatedly, such as in the fall of 2014, when he said he had been “trying to get the president to pay attention to the illegals who are in the country. Because there is a spike in hepatitis C, tuberculosis, HIV, and it’s going on deaf ears.” LePage made a similar suggestion this month during a town hall-style forum.

Rates of hepatitis and tuberculosis have increased in Maine, but medical experts say the increase in hepatitis is likely due to the heroin epidemic and more addicts sharing needles. State health officials do not collect information about the immigration status of people with reportable infectious diseases.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby contributed to this report.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center on June 15-21, 2016. Results are based on landline and cellular telephone interviews with 609 randomly selected Maine adults and 475 randomly selected likely Maine voters. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for all adults and plus or minus 4.5 percentage points for likely voters.