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LePage has softened his stance towards immigrants ahead of the election. Or has he?

Republican Paul LePage participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. LePage is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
Robert F. Bukaty
Republican Paul LePage participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. LePage is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

As he seeks his third non-consecutive term, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage has attempted to soften his stance toward immigrants. But his statements have been inconsistent and sometimes contradictory as he balances the desires of his base of supporters with those who view asylum seekers as vital to the state economy.

LePage has long embraced the immigration hardliners in the Republican party.

He partially channeled concerns over illegal immigration to reelection in 2014, and as Donald Trump described the southern border as overrun with criminals during his successful bid for president in 2016, LePage that same year described asylum seekers as the biggest problem in Maine at a town hall meeting in Freeport.

“And what happens is you get hepatitis C, tuberculosis, AIDS, HIV, the ‘ziki fly,’ (sic) all these other foreign type of diseases that find a way to our land,” he said.

"Ziki fly" was an incorrect reference to the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness, but nevertheless, the former governor's comments were typical of the language he used during his first two terms as he opposed public assistance for asylum seekers awaiting work permits and embraced Trump's foreign travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries.

The rhetoric he's using now is much different — at least sometimes.

"And I'll tell you, the governor of the state of Maine should have been parked in Washington, D.C., telling the President to let these people go to work," he said. "If you're going to send them to Maine, we're going to put them to work."

That was LePage during a debate recently hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald as he took a position similar to his campaign rival, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

Mills and members of Maine's congressional delegation support changing a federal law that currently bars asylum seekers from getting work permits until their asylum application has been in process for more than 180 days.

"We've got to lower the work eligibility," she said. "Those people who are here legally — and I have met personally with many of them. Lower it to 30 days. They're here to enjoy our freedoms and contribute to our economy. They should be allowed to do that."

Mills' stance is supported by business groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which views asylum seekers as key to solving the state's workforce shortage.

LePage, whose political brand is closely associated with his business background, reiterated his view that asylum seekers should be allowed to work during a recent forum hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce — even going so far as to obliquely chide Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for recently flying asylum seekers to Martha's Vineyard to make a political statement.

"Instead of sending them to Martha's Vineyard, I want to put them to work," he said.

But that's different than what LePage told attendees at a town hall-style meeting in Mount Vernon in August, according to audio from the event shared by the Maine Democratic Party.

At one point a man asks LePage how the state can deal with "all the illegal aliens that are being dumped into our state, towns and cities."

"Well, the only way you can do it is to do what Gov. Ducey and Gov. Abbott are doing. You rent a bus line, like Cyr bus line, and you ship 'em. You ship 'em to Washington, D.C.," he said.

LePage goes on to say that the bused asylum seekers should be delivered straight to the White House.

That contradicts what he told a crowd of business leaders during the Portland chamber forum, but LePage also displayed a range of inconsistencies during the Mount Vernon event itself.

After initially suggesting asylum seekers should be bused to D.C., he tried to come around to the position he's taken in debates — that asylum seekers should be allowed to work — only to get wildly inaccurate pushback from some members of the crowd.

"Well, we are the workers. They're coming into our little towns. They're bringing rape, murder, everything else," one woman yelled.

LePage again said the state has a lot of unfilled jobs, but the audience shouted over him.

"Bring 'em in legally! Bring 'em in legally."

"Yeah, they don't work!"

"Look, you're speaking to the choir. The person who has that policy is name is Joe Biden," he said.

"I'm not sure why he (LePage) is saying both things at the same time," said Beth Stickney, director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, which includes chambers of commerce and individual businesses.

Stickney listened to LePage's Mount Vernon comments, as well as remarks he's made during debates, and she's identified accurate statements mixed with an array of false ones.

For example, she said LePage has at times insisted that asylum seekers are here illegally, which is false, and at others he's said they are here legally, which is correct.

And Stickney said LePage's claim that federal rules prevent asylum seekers from working is also correct, although his claim during the Maine Public debate that the state could circumvent that prohibition with work IDs is not.

"State law cannot override federal law. And the only way that asylum seekers will be able to get their work permits more quickly is for Congress to change the law back to what it once was," she said.

Up until 1994, asylum seekers could apply for work permits at the same time they applied for asylum.

That changed in 1996 when Congress installed the 180-day wait period that exists today.

In Maine, the wait period has put pressure on host communities to provide food and shelter to asylum seekers through general assistance programs, which was made possible by a bill that passed in 2015 and that LePage attempted to veto, but not on time.

Now, his campaign is currently criticizing Gov. Mills for backing the program in an ad that falsely claims asylum seekers are illegal.

"Mills … giving taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants," the ad claims.

LePage's campaign declined a request to interview the former governor to help reconcile his divergent claims.

A LePage spokesman instead tried to make a distinction between asylum seekers who present themselves at a border checkpoint and those who cross illegally and then request asylum when caught by border patrol.

Stickney said the distinction does not change an asylum seeker's legal status, nor does it justify busing them to Washington, D.C.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.