In one of the first negative TV advertisements of the year, the Republican Governor's Association is zeroing in on Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud's support of cities and towns providing general assistance benefits to undocumented immigrants, at a cost of roughly $1 million.
The national political organization, which has already purchased $1.3 million in TV air time to support Gov. Paul LePage's reelection campaign, says in the advertisement that Michaud will support spending about $1 million in state money to provide benefits for "illegal immigrants" through general assistance, the local welfare program.
General Assistance is a municipal program that provides people in need with basic necessities, such as food, rent and help with utilities, such as heating bills in the winter. The program is administered locally, and depending on each municipality's size and needs, receives varying amounts of state money in reimbursements. In the 12-month period between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, the state reimbursed municipalities about $12 million for general assistance, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the reimbursement program.
"Do you think Maine's cities and towns should continue to use your tax dollars to pay welfare benefits to illegal immigrants?" asks a female announcer in the 30-second RGA ad, as images of concerned-looking white people flash on the screen. "Mike Michaud does."
Depictions of actual immigrants are never shown clearly; instead the ad features sepia silhouettes, images of a fence, a border patrol-style truck in a desert location and boots walking through sage brush, imagery more closely associated with the Mexico-United States border.
David Farmer, senior policy adviser to Michaud's campaign, said those actually affected by the policy shift are asylum seekers and refugees -- people who entered the United States legally but who lack documentation to remain -- and are not "illegal immigrants." This group of people is allowed by federal law to remain in the United States legally while they make their case that if they returned to their countries of origin they would face persecution.
"This ad is misleading and hateful and we don't believe that Mainers will be fooled by attacks like this," Farmer said. "Congressman Michaud does not believe that illegal immigrants should get benefits, however there is a difference between illegal and undocumented, and Governor LePage is blurring that line purposefully. It's hateful."
Farmer said the RGA fabricated a claim that Michaud would make the state friendlier to illegal immigrants, but there is no evidence showing people move from place to place based on availability of benefits. The RGA, through a spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for documentation of the claim.
The LePage administration in June directed the state to halt all reimbursements to municipalities that continue to supply aid to undocumented immigrants. State Attorney General Janet Mills has declined to defend the state, questioning the order's constitutionality. Critics say that if allowed to stand, LePage's policy would turn municipal general assistance offices into de facto immigration check-points, placing an unfair burden on local officials.
The Maine Municipal Association, joined by several advocacy groups, is suing the state in opposition to the directive, saying the LePage administration circumvented the regular rule-making process and placed towns in a legal quagmire, trapping them between the governor and a longstanding interpretation of federal law. The LePage administration says its rule brings the state into compliance with a separate, 1996 federal law barring the spending of taxpayer dollars on benefits for undocumented immigrants.