Baldacci Order Bars Questions by State on Immigration Status
Justin Ellis, Portland Press Herald, Apr. 10
AUGUSTA — Gov. John Baldacci signed an executive order Friday prohibiting state employees who provide public services from asking about a person’s immigration status. The new policy mirrors those adopted by a number of cities across the country, including Portland, but it appears to be the first statewide measure of its kind in the nation.
The move is the result of months of work by state officials, civil rights groups and community members that began with neighborhood meetings spurred by the immigration sweeps in Portland in January.
Supporters of the new policy say it sends a strong message to all people that the state is a welcoming place and its services are open to all who are in need.
“This order affirms that state services are available to all people in Maine without regard to personal characteristics,” Baldacci said Friday at the Blaine House, where he met with representatives of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, Maine chapter of the NAACP and state officials.
Several officials said issues of ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation cannot influence decisions regarding services, particularly in the areas of public health and safety.
But the document does identify situations when asking about a person’s immigration status is necessary, whether obligated by federal law or court order.
Specifically, the executive order says law enforcement officials can inquire about the legal status of someone if they are being investigated for illegal activity, “other than mere status as an undocumented alien.”
“This is not an act that will provide sanctuary for those who would do our communities harm,” Baldacci said. He went on to say it was “condescending” for anyone to imply Maine’s immigrant communities would harbor criminals or terrorists.
Members of community action groups and advocacy organizations called the new policy a bold step for the state.
“I could cry,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, vice president of the NAACP. “This is a victory for all Maine citizens.”
Talbot Ross said she hopes the immigration order shows the state is looking at ways of better connecting with its minority communities and the issues that affect them.
“It’s a huge message,” said Steve Wessler of the University of Southern Maine Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence. “This is leadership at its highest and gutsiest.”
Wessler said the move sends a strong message nationally, particularly as the CLEAR Act, a bill that would authorize local law enforcement agencies to apprehend illegal aliens, is moving forward in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But some question whether such policies hinder the country’s ability to protect its borders.
Jack Martin, special projects director with the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said “sanctuary” policies hurt efforts to coordinate counterterrorism efforts at the state and federal levels.
“A policy of this type would make no sense for a state like Maine, unless the governor wanted to encourage illegal aliens to locate to the state,” he said.
Martin said policies like Maine’s also damage the ability to enforce immigration and customs laws.
Cities around the country, such as New York, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver, have created similar local ordinances after discovering immigrant and minority populations were afraid of authorities. Some people have even refused health care and other social services.
In June 2003, Portland enacted its own ordinance. But this year, the issue came to the forefront again after federal immigration and border patrol agents conducted an operation in Portland. During that sweep, agents were instructed to check transportation hubs, but they also entered La Bodega, one of Portland’s ethnic markets, and the Preble Street Resource Center, which offers various services for low-income people.
In the weeks that followed, residents began meeting to discuss the sweeps, while others — including documented immigrants — were afraid to leave their homes or send their children to school.
The issue attracted federal attention. Maine Sen. Susan Collins questioned Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge about the sweeps.
Proponents of the policy have been trying to win Baldacci’s support since February. State agencies have assessed the potential impact of the policy during the past several months.
At Friday’s meeting, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara and Col. Craig Poulin, chief of the Maine State Police, said the new policy could only enhance their abilities to do their jobs.
Fortman and Cantara said the policy encourages agencies to better address issues of diversity.
Cantara said his department will start by looking at the curriculum it has at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
“We’re not about to turn a blind eye to criminal conduct,” Cantara said. “The Department of Public Safety is here to protect the people of Maine, whether you’ve been here 200 years or 20 minutes.”