AMHERST — Is it smart public policy to allow municipal governments in Maine to harbor illegal immigrants in defiance of federal immigration law?

That’s the question Maine’s left-wing progressive media and academic elites would prefer not to address forthrightly. It’s so much easier to create a straw man, and then show off your ability to kick the stuffing out of a flimsy stage prop.

Colby College anthropology teacher Catherine Besteman did exactly that in her Maine Voices column responding to my recent lecture at the University of Southern Maine on immigration policy.

She dismisses as fear-mongering any concerns about the cost of providing government services to illegal aliens. And she goes to great lengths to blur the distinction between illegal aliens – people who entered the country in violation of federal law – and those who got in line and played by the rules before coming to America.

The bill I’m sponsoring in the Maine Legislature will have no impact on legal immigration. But it will turn off one of the magnets that are attracting illegal aliens to Maine.

Recall that in 2004, Gov. John Baldacci signed an executive order that turned the entire state of Maine into a harboring haven for illegal immigrants. Baldacci’s decree forbade state employees from asking anyone applying for state benefits about their immigration status.

Maine effectively told the world that we have wide-open borders here, and everyone is welcome to sign up for our generous welfare benefits.

Gov. Paul LePage rescinded that order on his first day in office in 2011, putting an end to Maine’s open-borders policy. But there was no way to undo the damage already done by Baldacci’s harboring-haven order. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates reduction of overall immigration, Maine has an illegal immigrant population of about 5,000. Obviously, that number is not precise or exact.

It is an estimate, but it is consistent with the federal government’s estimate of 11 million illegal aliens nationally. FAIR estimates the cost of those 5,000 illegals to state and local Maine taxpayers at $41 million annually. Because the illegals pay only about $1 million a year in state and local taxes, Maine taxpayers bear a burden of more than $40 million a year to provide illegal aliens with public education, law enforcement, welfare and general government services.

Portland, Maine continues to welcome and subsidize illegals. The city passed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” ordinance in 2003 forbidding police and city employees from inquiring into anyone’s immigration status, even criminal suspects. City leaders boasted at the time that they were following the lead of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami and Denver.

Two years ago, Portland city councilors took $1.7 million appropriated by the Legislature for state aid to education and diverted that money from classrooms to an account that gives welfare benefits to noncitizens, including asylum seekers who have overstayed their visas. That money would have paid for hiring 25 new teachers, buying 150,000 textbooks or giving more than 300 teachers a 10 percent raise.

My bipartisan bill, L.D. 366, “An Act to Ensure Compliance with Federal Immigration Law by State and Local Government Entities,” would require all municipalities in Maine to comply with federal immigration law and share information about criminal suspects with federal immigration authorities. It would prohibit catch-and-release policies, such as Portland’s, that handcuff local police departments and serve as a magnet for illegal aliens.

Towns and cities that continue to defy federal immigration law by harboring illegal immigrants would lose all state funding, including state aid to education and revenue sharing. Citizens who are harmed by the criminal activity of illegal aliens would have legal recourse to sue the politicians who enable such policies.

Bottom line: We need to get our priorities in order. Maine is a poor state with limited resources.

As long as we have a single veteran not getting the very best care we can provide, and as long as we have elderly and disabled Mainers who have lived here and worked here and paid taxes here all their lives on wait lists for needed services, we cannot afford to provide government services to anyone who entered the country illegally. Period.

Maine’s most vulnerable citizens have been shoved to the back of the bus by liberal politicians. It’s long past time to put law-abiding Mainers first – our veterans, our elderly and disabled, and our schoolchildren.

Charity begins at home.