President Donald Trump greets former Gov. Paul LePage after exiting Air Force One at Bangor International Airport during a visit to Maine on June 5, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage said he welcomed refugees and thought former President Donald Trump had been “too harsh” on immigrants, signaling a shift from his own hard line on immigration during his two terms in the Blaine House.

The Republican running against Gov. Janet Mills in 2022 was one of the figures who spoke in Portland on Tuesday at the opening of a multicultural center run by the Maine Republican Party that aims to boost the party’s outreach toward immigrant and minority voters in the liberal city.

The comments suggest a recalibration on the issue and Republicans seek to make inroads with Maine’s small but growing immigrant community. Some of the most controversial remarks of LePage’s tenure centered on immigration. Days before the 2016 election, he ended Maine’s cooperation with a federal refugee resettlement program.

He also sought to limit aid to asylum seekers in Maine and said immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally were driving cases of infectious diseases. Some comments prompted significant pushback among immigrant leaders, who said his rhetoric was causing immigrants to leave Maine out of fear. Mills, a Democrat, reversed some of his policies after taking office in 2019.

Asked about his past policies on Tuesday, LePage denied that he had tried to pull Maine out of the refugee program, saying he “loved refugees” and only had concerns about the flow of drugs at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“People coming in, I endorse them, I love them, especially when they speak French,” LePage said in a nod to his native language also spoken by immigrants from some African countries.

The former governor, an early endorser of Trump in 2016, also said he thought the former president, along with the rest of the country, was overly harsh on immigrants after he made immigration a central issue of his 2016 campaign and sought as president to ban immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, which LePage supported at the time. Legal immigration dropped sharply over Trump’s four years in office.

But LePage said Tuesday he would like to see “Ellis Island again,” saying Maine needed more workers and the federal government should reform immigration law to provide pathways other than the southern border. He also called for allowing asylum seekers to work sooner after getting to the U.S. rather than relying on public assistance, something widely supported by business interests and Maine’s bipartisan congressional delegation.

“Let’s get together, fix the immigration laws so that people do not have to be brought in by cartels,” LePage said. “I’m all for people coming in the front door.”

The opening of a multicultural center in Portland also represented a shift for the Maine Republican Party, which has seen its vote share in Maine’s largest city shrink even further in the past decade. Democrats indicated skepticism, noting LePage’s past comments.

“Opening a campaign office during an election year isn’t going to erase the harm that Paul LePage has done to new Mainers or make them forget who he really is,” Maine Democratic Party Chair Drew Gattine said in a statement.

The office mirrors “community centers” for immigrants and minority groups that the Republican National Committee has helped fund in other states in the past year. Its stated goals include helping with voter registration and political training, as well as other issues such as aid with resumes or starting a business.

Suheir Alaskari, the chair of the Maine GOP center, said she was not looking to work with one party or the other, but appreciated the support offered by Republicans and had felt welcomed by them. Alaskari, who was born in Iraq and moved to Maine five years ago, said the goal of the center was not electoral but in boosting economic development opportunities.

She is working toward becoming a U.S. citizen, but said her interest is in helping the community more than politics.

“I prefer to work with people, not necessarily politics,” she said. “But I will definitely always be an advocate.”