AUGUSTA, Maine — The debate over immigration is raging in the three-person race for governor in Maine, far from where an influx of central American youth is crossing the nation’s southern border.
Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, sharply criticized the federal government this week for placing eight immigrant children in Maine without advising him. His campaign is seeking to elevate the debate in the race by consistently questioning his Democratic opponent on the issue.
LePage contends that it is ‘‘wrong for the federal government to force a higher burden on the people of Maine to pay for those who come to our country illegally, especially when the government secretly places illegal aliens in our state without our knowledge.’’
More than 57,000 minors, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, have crossed into the United States since October, a surge of arrivals brought on by violence in the three countries. The federal government has released many of them, including the eight who have been placed in Maine, to sponsors, typically parents or family friends.
The campaign of US Representative Mike Michaud, a Democrat who is challenging LePage in November alongside independent Eliot Cutler, said that the governor is oversimplifying a complicated debate to score political points while dragging the issue into the race to distract voters from problems in his campaign.
‘‘Governing means having all the information before you can decide,’’ said Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt. ‘‘Michaud isn’t an ideologue like LePage. He is someone who’s a practical problem solver.’’
LePage’s administration said it is committed to helping the state’s most vulnerable, but that it must use its limited resources to help Mainers first. He urged the federal government to find a solution to the crisis at the border, ‘‘not look to Maine to harbor illegal immigrants.’’
That came weeks after the governor’s administration announced a new policy directing cities and towns to stop providing municipal welfare benefits to immigrants who cannot prove they are living in the country legally. That includes those who have applied for asylum but have not yet been processed by the federal government.
Michaud said he disagrees with that policy and that a request to house immigrant children in Maine would have to consider several factors, including ‘‘assessing what sites, if any, would be appropriate to house the children; what the costs would be; and who would have primary responsibility over the operation.’’
After Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who has agreed to shelter unaccompanied children in his state, visited Maine this week to stump for Michaud’s campaign, the congressman said he respected Patrick’s decision. But he said that it is a decision ‘‘each governor and state must make on their own.’’
That drew fierce criticism from Republicans that he is merely dodging the issue by refusing to make clear his position.