This Nation of Immigrants is an ever-changing land

Ah, to see inside the head of Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who at least briefly managed to surpass Gov. Paul LePage in the Department of Blunt Statements by telling Somali refugees, in a televised BBC interview, to “leave your culture at the door.”

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Immigration illustration

Macdonald, elected last year, has roused grumbling from a wide variety of sources for provocative remarks in a weekly newspaper column. And he followed up his BBC comments with more provocations.

He told WGME-TV that he’d been quoted out of context, but his very next words suggested he hadn’t: “I don’t care what color you are, when you come into the country, you have to accept our culture,” he said. “Don't try to insert your culture into ours.”

Things came to a head at Tuesday’s city council meeting, when the seven councilors listened silently as Macdonald insisted things are fine between him and the Somali community, while many members of that community told him they weren’t.

Macdonald isn’t going to heed requests to resign and Lewiston doesn’t allow recall of mayors, but his refusal to apologize will keep the controversy going — something most people in Lewiston had hoped was now history.

Ten years ago, then-Mayor Larry Raymond wrote an “open letter” to the Somalis, saying the city was maxed out with immigrants and needed a break. Since then, though, Lewiston mayors have gone out of their way to convey a different message. Macdonald’s immediate predecessor, Larry Gilbert, often talked about the revival of the downtown Lisbon Street shopping area by Somali-owned restaurants and shops, and pointed out other immigrant contributions to the — yes — culture of the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Macdonald might seem just an unusually cranky and stubborn politician if it weren’t that this Nation of Immigrants is itself in another fit of ambivalence about immigration.

Like cultures the world over, we like to have traditions and verities, and a sense that we know just what Americans, and Mainers, are all about. But we don’t. That’s because what’s American is constantly changing, in ways both unexpected and profound.

The first federal laws restricting immigration weren’t passed until the 1920s, despite anti-immigrant flare-ups earlier, targeting in succession Irish and German immigrants in the East and Chinese and Japanese migrants in the West. The 1920s laws were directed against southern Europeans, particularly those from Italy, Greece and the Balkans — the Irish and Germans having long since been assimilated. In Maine, French-Canadians were the primary targets.

Given our inability to consistently legislate what kinds of immigrants we do want, one has to wonder whether any new immigration protocol can work. Yet we know that Mayor Macdonald’s uniquely passive-aggressive stance isn’t the answer.

Nor, for that matter, is Mitt Romney's endorsement of “self-deportation” — making life so miserable for people without papers that they’ll go back. Romney now seems to regret that stance, saying he’d accept the young people President Obama has legalized by executive order. If he’d also stop faulting Obama for not pushing immigration reform earlier, against often-hysterical Republican opposition, there might even be a chance for successful legislation next year.

Still, it’s complicated. We bask in the glow that people from all over the world want to come here to live, or at least to work. We ignore the accompanying reality that many jobs offer wages so low that most American families can’t live on them, so the vast bulk of undocumented workers come from Mexico and Latin America, where Third World economies still prevail.

“Fixing” the problem of immigration requires many changes, some of which,  like a livable minimum wage, we seem unlikely to adopt. Yet we could at least try to formulate a new version of who, exactly, it is we want to join us.

Existing immigration preferences impose nationality quotas, certainly a bad idea, since visa requests are constantly shifting.

They also emphasize family reunification, which seems unobjectionable, but in practice keeps out many young people with the education and skills to be successful here almost immediately.

As long as we limit immigration, we’ll have to make choices, and new preferences that emphasize skills and knowledge on the part of immigrants make some sense.

Even then, we must also recognize our responsibility to accept refugees from the many wars in which we involve ourselves — Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia and, soon enough, Iraq and Afghanistan.

However they arrive, everybody who comes here and becomes a citizen has a part to play in the continuing creation of America, our ever-changing land. If we don’t take account of that truth, we’ll never be able to make peace with ourselves.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 25 years. He may be reached at drooks@tds.net.

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Comments

 's picture

Immigrants

With the whole economy in the mess that it is in and alot of people living from hand to mouth and you can't see that we are maxed out on immigration must be living under a rock or unlimited funds. If you have a limit on the number of immigrants a year and that should depend on the economy as well then you can't change it cause someone wants to bring all his or her family so you change the rules for that one and then another one. If we have to bring in immigrants to do jobs that Americans won't do or can't live on the income then how do immigrants manage to live on it? If your standing on a street corner with a sign saying homeless and hungry but don't take a job cause its not enough to live on then I guess that needs a better explanation then what I am getting. If you can only get 20 hrs at one job then you get 20 at another. The thing is to do what you have to do but nowadays the system says you don't have to. Can't afford to work for those wages but can afford 7 bucks for a pack of cigarettes kinda borders on the ridiculous.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

How can anyone defend their actions?????

I hear daily, the same lame excuses over and over. Let him speak, he has a right to his opinion. That may be true, but the hypochracy of his words just keep biting me. He wants everyone to leave their culture at the door. However that applies to everyone else but himself. At the earliest age possible I left the Boston area, totally due to the fact that everyone had McDonald's attitude. Attitude is a large part of your culture. Evidently it's O.K. for him to be from someplace else, but don't anyone else try it. He obviously doesn't realize he has an attitude problem, then again very few people who have it, know it. If he wants everyone to leave their culture at the door, he needs to lead by example. If he's not going to do that, nothing short of a formal apology to the people he insulted is called for.......

Amedeo Lauria's picture

Speaking their mind...

Who are the people who speak with emotion vs facts? It's certainly not our Governor and the Mayor of Lewiston. The Governor specifically addresses solutions to Maine's challenges with facts, figures and workable solutions, which of course seems very cold to the left. However, he is responsible for outcomes; they are not. Heaven forbid we live in an America where only politically correct speak is allowed and others are muzzled. It is wrong regardless of your place on the political spectrum. We have a Constitution, the best in the world, we should all read and understand it. An open and free exchange of ideas is the country I was raised in; and I like it very much...thank you!

RONALD RIML's picture

The Governor what?????

"The Governor specifically addresses solutions to Maine's challenges with facts, figures and workable solutions"

- "To think, I used to steal Halloween candy from other kids. Now I am the governor!"

Denis Ledoux's picture

This Nation of Immigrants

Doug Rooks has written an insightful article which ought to promote rational discussion.

In yesterday's editorial, Mayor MacDonald's right to express himself was defended. Of course, as mayor he no longer speaks entirely as himself but as a representative of the body politic. As with Governor LePage, he is often cited as being blunt and "telling it like it is." Of course, none of us ever "tells it like it is." There is no such thing as "telling it like it is." We always tell it as WE see it. "

In both cases, we have officials who reveal a low level of thinking, one that does not seem fed by reflection and reading and discussion. (Does anyon eimagine that either MacDnald or Lepage stay up late at night reading and reflecting--huffing and puffing, yes, but reading and reflecting? Theirs are not considered opinions (just remember all of MacDonald's and LePage's statements--"it's worth a few whiskers on a woman's chin!") but have all the appearance of ignorant expressions. More thoughtful people would refrain from making so public their lack of deeper thinking and understanding.

In both cases we have officials who are elected because of failures of our electoral systems. MacDonald ran against a dead man and LePage got elected by a tiny element of the electorate. Until our electoral systems are emended to include majority votes and recall possibilities, we will continue to suffer the likes of many of our current officials.

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