AUGUSTA — The Legislature will soon join more than a half-dozen states debating the merits of an anti-illegal immigration bill modeled after the controversial Arizona law.
Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, has submitted a bill request that would require immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times and would allow local law enforcement agencies to ask whether the individuals are in the United States illegally. Chase said the bill was similar to the so-called "show-me-your-papers" Arizona law.
The bill has already generated a fierce reaction from human rights advocates who said such a law would lead to racial profiling and would focus local policing on a nonexistent problem.
Chase, who said she entered the legislation at the request of a constituent, said the proposal was meant to ensure Maine's coast and border with Canada were protected.
"It's not intended to be harsh or put us in a police state," Chase said. "It's just to protect our shores, our borders, our country."
Chase said she wasn't sure whether the state had an illegal immigration problem.
"There are those who think (it's a problem)," she said. "But I'm not necessarily saying I'm one of them."
Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the proposal targets a nonexistent issue that could jeopardize fragile relationships between law enforcement and Maine's immigrant population.
"Arizona-style racial profiling and 'show-me-your-papers' tactics are un-American and unconstitutional," Bellows said. "This proposal undermines public safety by diverting scarce security resources toward false threats and eroding trust between law enforcement and communities of color."
Chase's proposal makes Maine one of more than a half-dozen states currently taking up anti-illegal immigration measures like the Arizona law, which proponents and opponents agree is the broadest and strictest immigration reform in decades.
Nebraska, Indiana, Colorado and Texas unveiled similar bills this week. The Mississippi state Senate earlier this month approved its version of the law, while Florida has been considering one, as well.
In each case, the legislation has sparked a debate between those who believe undocumented immigrants are overtaxing public services and those who say such measures open the door for harassment based on skin color.
Critics of the Arizona law also say the legislation was shepherded by the private prison industry. A National Public Radio investigation showed that the Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company in the country, lobbied extensively for the legislation. The company operates six prisons in Arizona, three of which house inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The company has proposed to build a prison in Milo. It would be built for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and would house immigration inmates for ICE.
Joseph Ponte, Gov. Paul LePage's pick to head the Maine Department of Corrections, is currently the warden for the Nevada Southern Detention Center, which is run by the Corrections Corp. of America.
The company contributed $25,000 to LePage's campaign via a contribution to the Republican Governors Association.
Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, said the governor had not yet reviewed Chase's legislation and declined to comment.
It's unclear how the bill would work into existing Maine law, which appears to defer to federal law in regard to immigration policy.
Ben Chin, immigration organizer for the Maine People's Alliance, a liberal activist organization, said Chase's proposal, like those in other states, is "racist and unconstitutional."
"There is no question they will lead to more racial profiling, as law enforcement is forced to rely on racial stereotypes to determine who they ask for their papers," Chin said. "Maine needs to become more welcoming to immigrants and people of color, not less."
Chase said her intent was to make sure local law-enforcement agencies supported federal immigration agencies.
"Personally, I think the federal government should probably do more (enforcement)," Chase said. "But let's put (the issue) out there for people to at least discuss it."