Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin speaks at a campaign event at Dysart's on Broadway in Bangor on Oct. 13, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Housing authorities in Maine responded Thursday to a story told repeatedly on the campaign trail by former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin about a woman living in her car who says she was bumped from a housing list by undocumented immigrants.

Most federal housing programs managed by local housing authorities, including Section 8 vouchers, do not serve those in the country illegally and those served at housing authorities must provide proof of citizenship or legal immigration status. Decisions are not made based on immigration status.

“Such misinformation erodes trust in the public housing system on which so many individuals and families depend for safe, quality affordable housing, and it cannot be left uncorrected,” read a statement from the Maine Association of Public Housing Authority Directors that did not name Poliquin but came in response to his remarks.

It was a rare response from local officials on a hot-button issue less than three weeks before Election Day. Poliquin, a Republican running against Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, has told the story while adopting former President Donald Trump’s “America first” line on immigration and other issues in Maine’s conservative 2nd District.

At a September debate with Golden and independent challenger Tiffany Bond and in a recent interview with WCSH, he relayed the story of a woman he met at a Lewiston event who told him she was living in her car with cats. He suggested that she approach the local housing authority, but she said she already had.

“I was at the top of the list to receive an apartment,” he said she told him. “I got bumped down the list because folks have come to this country illegally.”

Poliquin went on to call that “wrong” and used it to argue for increased border security. Campaign spokesperson Roy Mathews said the candidate was “elevating this middle-aged homeless woman’s voice and experience with her need for housing available in Maine.”

Immigration has been at the forefront of Poliquin’s campaign with Golden. He was endorsed by the union representing Border Patrol members and traveled to the Texas-Mexico border in January with fellow Republicans, although he and Golden have few policy differences on it.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who is facing Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, has also campaigned on the issue. A 2019 policy reversal by Mills to allow aid under the state-local General Assistance program to go toward housing for asylum seekers has been at the heart of it. LePage’s campaign has referred to that as “taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants.”

That is off-base. Those seeking asylum from persecution may be undocumented when they arrive but are here legally while they await action on immigration cases. LePage and Poliquin have distinguished between asylum seekers who enter the country illegally or declare their status at the border, but they are treated the same way under asylum law.

“It’s either ignorance on the speaker’s part — and immigration law is complicated — or it’s political opportunism on the speaker’s part,” Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, said.

Maine has been noted nationally for generous aid for asylum seekers. It has helped draw hundreds of them, mostly from African countries, to southern Maine over the past few years. The temporary General Assistance program pays for rent and other necessities, in part because no other programs exist to serve them and because asylum seekers cannot work immediately.

That has intersected with a housing affordability crisis in Maine. In southern Maine, asylum seekers have stayed in hotels, with South Portland officials saying in May that the city could no longer guarantee housing. The separate Section 8 program has a waiting list of nearly 13,000 households, said Scott Thistle, a MaineHousing spokesperson.

While hedging on the details of the story, Poliquin’s campaign gestured to the broader housing crisis and blamed President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats for their immigration policies.

“Bruce has heard from thousands of Mainers as he travels the state who have concerns about non-citizens coming to Maine and receiving limited taxpayer-funded welfare services, including housing,” Mathews said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...