Former governor Paul LePage talks with supporters at the Holden Police Department on July 1. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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The horrifying deaths of 53 people who had been abandoned in the back of a tractor-trailer truck in Texas last month are a heartbreaking reminder of the risks migrants will take to escape the desperation and violence in their homelands to try to come to the United States.

Despite outrage over deaths like these, many people still demonize new immigrants. These immigrants are often fearful of speaking up. They want to fit in in their new country, not draw attention to themselves. And, because they are new to their communities, they often don’t have large, well-funded groups that lobby for them.

Blaming new arrivals for taking away jobs, food, housing, educational opportunities — anything that is in short supply — is as old as migration itself. At various points in time, immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and even Canada, have been blamed for the hardships of Americans.

So, I find it discouraging that, once again, former Gov. Paul LePage looks ready to target new arrivals in Maine. Despite comments earlier this year that he supported immigrants — especially those who speak French — he recently told the Portland Press Herald that, if elected governor again, he would again try to institute policies that denied assistance to asylum seekers in Maine.

Aside from the plain meanness of such a pledge, it betrays a misunderstanding of asylum seekers and the laws around their early days in America.

First, under international law people who are seeking to escape persecution based on their race, religion, nationality and several other factors are allowed to seek asylum in other countries. Under U.S. law, asylum seekers must enter the country and follow a process for applying to stay. The asylum process can take many years because there are far too few immigration judges who are handling a growing backlog of cases.

Certainly, there is a strong case to be made that America’s asylum system — and our immigration system in general — is broken. Blaming those who are seeking refuge from violence, abuse and persecution for a broken American immigration system is both illogical and heartless. I realize that pushing Congress to improve the system seems futile, but fixing the system should take priority over punishing people who dream of coming to America like generations before them.

A second major problem is that federal law prevents those seeking asylum in America from applying for authorization to work for a full year. This is ludicrous. Asylees wouldn’t need the help that LePage has pledged to take away if they could work and earn money to support themselves. In part because of the law, communities like Portland and South Portland, which are often the initial home to the majority of the state’s asylum seekers, are spending millions of dollars to house and help these new arrivals. Allowing them to work much sooner would be a better policy.

Most of Maine’s congressional delegation has supported federal legislation to change this law. In February, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, along with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema,   introduced legislation to reduce the wait period to apply for a work permit to 30 days. Rep. Chellie Pingree had previously reintroduced similar legislation in the U.S. House.

In April, when the Maine GOP opened a multicultural center in Portland, LePage said he supports such a change. So his more recent comments about not supporting asylum seekers sound like a worrying step backward.

Maine needs more people — to fill the thousands of vacant jobs and, frankly, to care for our aging population. Because more people are dying than being born in many Maine counties, these people will have to come from outside the state’s borders. Many will come from other countries.

Helping them succeed here is a much better tactic than making their early days here harsh and unwelcoming.

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Susan Young

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.