Former Gov. Paul LePage sought to limit the flow of immigrants to the state during his eight years in office, cutting public support for noncitizens seeking asylum and ending the state’s participation in refugee resettlement.

Gov. Janet Mills reversed many of those policies over the past four years, supporting public assistance for legally present noncitizens and speaking out about the importance of welcoming immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers as both an economic and moral imperative.

The two major party candidates running for governor have well-established, and nearly opposite, records when it comes to the emotionally charged topic of immigration. And it’s an issue that will be front and center again for whoever wins in November.

Business leaders struggling with severe workforce shortages say asylum seekers, refugees, seasonal migrant workers and foreign student workers are crucial to the economy of an aging state that historically has recorded more deaths than births.

At the same time, an influx of asylum seekers who must wait for permission to work is straining public resources and the availability of affordable housing in Portland and other communities, feeding opposition to taxpayer-funded assistance for noncitizens.

The race between a sitting governor and former governor offers an unusual opportunity to compare records and not just rhetoric. The third candidate on the ballot, independent Sam Hunkler, has never held public office and described only a general philosophy that Maine should welcome immigrants who arrive legally and can help fill the demand for workers.


The LePage campaign did not respond to a request to interview the former two-term governor for this story and did not respond specifically to questions sent by email.

LePage’s political strategist, Brent Littlefield, provided a statement criticizing Mills for supporting public assistance to asylum seekers and saying LePage supports comprehensive immigration reform “to fix a broken system and allow vetted, law abiding, people into the United States and Maine. He also supports efforts to ensure that those here legally can get any required certifications quickly to become employed.”

This summer, Republicans opened multicultural community centers in Portland and Lewiston as part of what the party said is a national outreach campaign to immigrant communities. And LePage has softened his rhetoric on the subject.

“We are all immigrants in this country,” LePage said at a campaign event in Lewiston in June. “As long as we come here legally and do it right, we are one big happy family.”

But LePage, who was governor from 2011 to 2019, also has continued to say he does not believe asylum seekers are here legally, even though they are allowed to remain in the country while pursuing their application for permanent status.

In an interview with the Press Herald this month, Mills discussed the important role immigrants can and should play in the state’s economy, saying businesses are looking for ways to better integrate new Mainers in the workforce.


And she’s been pushing for immigration reforms on the national level that include addressing the immigration court backlog and shortening the waiting period before asylum seekers can work.

“Many of them come here with not only availability, but skill,” Mills said. “Some have advanced degrees. Some have experience in the trades. Many of them have skills we need in our workforce today and that’s what businesses are telling me and asking for.”


A close look at their records in office shows there is one area of agreement between Mills and LePage.

Both acknowledge the importance of both foreign students holding J-1 visas and seasonal migrants working under H2A and H2B visas.

While supportive of most of former President Donald Trump’s immigration proposals, LePage did not agree with Trump’s efforts to end the seasonal migrant and foreign student worker visa programs. LePage expressed his opposition in two separate letters to the president in 2017.


“This tight labor market, combined with our status as the oldest state in the nation, is creating a workforce shortage,” LePage wrote. “If Maine’s workforce supported these jobs, I assure you we would hire American workers first. We are working to solve the problem of our aging workforce, but we need to stay open for business in the interim.”

He added, “the elimination of these programs would leave a gap in Maine’s tourism industry, the backbone of our economy, and would result in slowing our economic growth.”

Mills also has written federal officials, requesting more worker visas, which were curtailed during the pandemic. In 2021, she wrote to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, requesting more H2B visa workers. In early January, she joined governors from seven other states in writing President Biden, calling for more J-1, H2A and H2B visa workers.

“Again, we request your help to increase the flow of work-based visas as an additional tool to help address our workforce shortages and the cascading economic consequences of those shortages,” the governors wrote.


Beyond worker and student visas, however, their records mostly show they implemented opposing policies when it comes to noncitizens hoping to start new lives in Maine.


LePage staked out a hard line on immigration even before winning election as governor.

As mayor of Waterville, LePage wrote Democratic Gov. John Baldacci in 2004, blasting his executive order that prohibited state employees from asking about immigration status when providing public benefits.

One of LePage’s first actions as governor was rescinding that executive order and then eliminating the ability of noncitizens, including those in the country legally seeking asylum, to receive state-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They remained eligible for federal TANF funds.

In 2016, LePage wrote to President Barack Obama, saying he was formally withdrawing Maine from participation in the federal refugee resettlement program because of concerns about screening immigrants and the burden on the state’s welfare programs, which supports immigrants who already have been processed and can immediately seek work and full citizenship status. The action did not stop the flow of refugees because the federal government can work directly with private resettlement agencies to do the work of placing and supporting refugees.

LePage was a vocal supporter of Trump’s proposals to restrict entry into the United States of people from Muslim-majority nations and to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows the children of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. and apply for driver’s licenses, social security numbers and work permits.

LePage strongly opposed public assistance for noncitizens, sometimes incorrectly arguing they are here illegally.


Throughout his terms and while campaigning this summer, LePage has repeatedly described asylum seekers as being in the country illegally, even though federal law allows foreign nationals to remain in the country while their asylum applications are decided. Foreign nationals are eligible for asylum if they are fleeing persecution for reasons such as political or religious beliefs.

LePage repeatedly criticized Portland for supporting noncitizens and falsely described it as a sanctuary city, which generally means the city does not allow law enforcement to help immigration authorities. Portland has no such prohibition.

In 2014, he sought to punish Portland other municipalities that provided asylum seekers with General Assistance, a state-funded safety net program that provides vouchers for shelter, food and medicine for those in need.

In court, he secured a partial victory in that effort. He successfully argued that the 1996 federal welfare reform act, signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, prohibited noncitizens from receiving public benefits unless a state has enacted a law specifically making them eligible. LePage accurately noted that Maine had never enacted such a law, despite years of providing assistance. And the court ruled in his favor.

The Republican-controlled Legislature responded by passing a law making asylum seekers eligible for assistance. It became law when LePage failed to veto that and 64 other bills before the statutory deadline.

LePage, however, sought to restrict eligibility through rulemaking, prohibiting some asylum seekers who are legally present in the country from receiving benefits, including victims of human trafficking.



Mills set herself apart from LePage well before she became governor. The pair clashed when Mills was attorney general and publicly opposed Trump’s travel ban from Muslim-majority countries and his effort to end DACA.

Mills also engaged in a high-profile confrontation with LePage over General Assistance for asylum seekers. She sided with the Maine Municipal Association, Portland and other communities when LePage threatened to withhold funding.

As governor, Mills rewrote the strict, LePage-era eligibility rules for asylum seekers to receive GA to ensure that all asylum seekers who had been excluded by LePage, including the victims of human trafficking, would be eligible for assistance. Mills has supported efforts to reduce the amount of time asylum seekers need to wait before they can work.

Mills has not taken steps to unwind the state-funded TANF rule approved by the LePage administration, but she worked with the Legislature to restore MaineCare eligibility for noncitizen children under 21 and pregnant women who are not citizens.

That came in response to the sudden arrival of hundreds of migrant families that entered the U.S. through the southern border to seek asylum and traveled to Portland in 2019. Virtually all of these migrant families were from sub-Saharan Africa, including Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Over the last two years, the number of asylum seekers coming to Portland has grown. The Mills administration helped secure hotel rooms to shelter the migrants, and other people seeking housing, during the pandemic.

The cost of those rooms is being covered by federal funding. That funding is set to expire soon, although a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said no date has been announced. So the Legislature added $10 million in additional General Assistance funding in Mills’ supplemental budget to help offset costs in the event federal funding is not renewed.

And Mills allocated an additional $22 million to secure transitional housing for asylum seekers, and others experiencing homelessness. A spokesperson said that $750,000 in funding has been invested into a new partnership with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Portland nonprofit that helps asylum seekers with their applications for asylum and work permits.

Mills also has increased investments in English language programs, which are key to helping asylum seekers become integrated into the community and gain meaningful employment.

Mills increased adult education funding by 14 percent since taking office in January 2019, including a $1.2 million increase specifically in adult education workforce development funding, according to a 2021 release from the Department of Education.

Mills’ steps to support noncitizens have nevertheless fallen short of some advocates’ hopes.


Immigrant leaders, as well as elected and administrative officials in Portland, issued a very public call for Mills to create a new asylum settlement office and help coordinate on-the-ground services, such as transportation, food, medicine and other services that are currently being delivered by area nonprofits.

At the time, a spokesperson for Mills said the governor would consider the request.

When asked in an interview with the Press Herald last month where her administration was in evaluating this request, Mills emphasized the steps she has already taken, without committing to do more.

“We have been doing a lot of things in different ways,” she said. 

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