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In an off-the-cuff jab at Portland, Gov. Paul LePage said this week that Maine’s largest city belongs on a list of so-called “sanctuary cities” that have been criticized for not helping federal authorities deport illegal immigrants.

But Portland does not qualify for the label, city officials and an immigration lawyer said Tuesday.

LePage was with 2016 Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie at a campaign stop Sunday in New Hampshire when the New Jersey governor brought up the politically charged topics of illegal immigrants and sanctuary cities.

Christie first criticized President Obama, saying he is soft on immigration and that he has allowed people who are in the U.S. illegally – and commit crimes – to remain in the country.

Then, with LePage nearby, Christie went on to name several large cities with similar policies – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. That’s when Maine’s governor interjected: “and Portland, Maine.”


While Portland’s welcoming attitude toward legally present asylum seekers has been a point of contention with the governor, the sanctuary label doesn’t stick, according to city officials and the head of a local nonprofit legal clinic for immigrants.

“Portland is not a sanctuary city,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in an email.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, concurred.

“Portland is not a city that has instructed police to not cooperate with immigration authorities,” she said.

The term “sanctuary city” does not have a single legal definition. It is generally used to describe a city or state that has a policy or practice against allowing local law enforcement to help federal agents investigate, arrest and detain people suspected of being in the country illegally. Some extend that definition to include places that prohibit inquiries about an individual’s immigration status, or that refuse to detain people on behalf of federal agents.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C., 276 local jurisdictions in 43 states were deemed sanctuary cities. From Jan. 1, 2014 to Aug. 31, 2014, those jurisdictions refused 8,811 federal detainer requests, including nearly 3,000 people with prior felony charges or convictions, the center reported in July,


The group does not identify any Maine communities as being sanctuary cities.

The issue of sanctuary cities was thrust into the national spotlight in July, when a 32-year-old woman was killed in San Francisco by a Mexican national with previous felony convictions who had been deported several times. As a sanctuary city, prosecutors there didn’t notify federal authorities when the individual was released on a marijuana charge.

Since then, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to crack down on sanctuary cities. Obama has said he will veto the bill, which faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate, where bipartisan support would be needed.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, voted in favor of the measure. Poliquin declined through a spokesman to comment about whether he considers Portland to be a sanctuary city.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, LePage rescinded a 2004 executive order that prohibited state officials from inquiring about the immigration status of individuals seeking public assistance. The order stated that “it is the intent of this administration to promote rather than hinder the enforcement of federal immigration law.”

The allegation against Portland is the latest salvo aimed at Maine’s largest, and arguably most liberal, city by LePage, who has long criticized the city for providing aid to certain types of immigrants – primarily those fleeing violence and persecution in Africa to seek asylum in Maine.


Most asylum seekers come to the U.S. legally on valid visas, but it isn’t uncommon for those visas to expire before an asylum application has been filed, because of the complexity of the process, according to asylum seekers and advocates.

Portland does not prohibit police from cooperating with federal immigration officials, although city employees are prohibited from asking about the immigration status of people seeking city services unless compelled by a court or law, Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said in an email.

Allowing local law enforcement to cooperate with federal authorities, as Portland does, is “actually contrary to what I believe a so-called sanctuary city would do,” West-Chuhta said in a recent email to the city manager in response to the congressional vote.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said local police do not enforce immigration laws because they are federal statutes. However, police will provide a uniformed presence to back up federal authorities upon request, he said.

And, while Portland police do not routinely ask people about immigration status, even if they are arrested on a criminal offense, the police department would inform federal agents if the individual arrested had a prior deportation, Sauschuck said.

“The definition of a sanctuary city changes depending on what side of the argument you’re on,” he said. “I certainly don’t view Portland as a sanctuary city by any definition.”

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