By Dave Sherwood
BOWDOINHAM Maine (Reuters) - Maine Governor Paul Lepage has threatened to cut state funding from the General Assistance Program to cities and towns that give aid to undocumented immigrants, a move that highlights increasing national anxiety over immigration reform and its trickle-down effect to the states.
In a radio address Tuesday, Lepage - a Republican who is seeking re-election in November in what is expected to be a tight race - called on Mainers to "tell your city councilors and selectmen to stop handing out your money to illegals."
Maine's General Assistance Program provides benefits to families with children in emergencies, and receives as much as 90 percent of its funding from the state, according to Maine's Department of Health and Human Services.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said the governor had overstepped his authority and worried the move would force city and town officials to ask everyone about their immigration status.
"The person fleeing domestic violence, the victim of human trafficking, the asylum seeker awaiting federal approval ... are least likely to have this paperwork on hand during a crisis," Mills said in a statement.
Lepage said he was simply enforcing an 18-year-old federal law. "What about 'illegal' doesn't she understand?" he said.
Mills' statements suggest the feud could be headed to court as the window for national immigration reform begins to close. President Barack Obama has pushed to create a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented residents but action has stalled in the Republican-controlled House as mid-term elections approach and political rancor increases.
The debate also highlights the divide in the closely watched race for governor in Maine between the Tea Party-backed incumbent Lepage and challenger Mike Michaud, a Democratic U.S. representative who, if elected, would be the country's first governor to declare he is gay before taking office. A recent poll shows Michaud and Lepage in a statistical dead heat.
"The states have a crisis in their lap right now," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. "The Congress can talk all they want but it is the governors that have to deal with the day-to-day problems posed by undocumented immigrants."
Maine's agriculture and tourism industries depend heavily on migrant workers during the summer, although much of the undocumented labor force has been purged from high-profile coastal hotels and the wild blueberry industry by digital verification systems.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Bill Trott)