I should feel a sense of satisfaction in seeing my prediction about Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald (now the target of intense criticism for his harsh comments about immigrants) come true. But I don’t.
I’d prefer that Macdonald not be pressured into resigning. I just want him to become more thoughtful in his public remarks and to stop lobbing verbal grenades that are socially divisive and reflect badly on the city of which he is titular head.
In a column which appeared last November when Macdonald was running for mayor, I criticized the rabble-rousing, immigrant-bashing and racially tinged tone of his campaign ads and statements, predicting he would harm the city’s image if elected.
Once he took office, however, Macdonald pleasantly surprised me by acting in a restrained and appropriate fashion at City Council meetings, in public events and in media interviews. He even made what seemed a sincere effort to reach out to the local Somali community.
Lately, however, his ready-fire-aim statements on how immigrants should behave have been drawing a lot of negative attention from within Maine and beyond.
Notable IEDs have included one to a BBC interviewer that when refugees “come here, you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door” and another in a WGME-TV appearance that “these people who are yelling I’m insensitive to their culture, if (their culture) is so great, why are they not back in Somalia?”
When challenged, the mayor defends his statements by claiming they were misunderstood or taken out of context, that he really likes and supports Somalis — at least the ones he considers the right kind of Somalis — and that he’s not going to apologize.
Yet I have come to believe that Macdonald is neither a racist nor rigidly anti-immigrant.
Instead, I believe that he has deeply rooted misconceptions about the social and economic realities of immigration and a misunderstanding of its history.
He seems to expect people from an entirely different culture, who speak a foreign tongue and come here with scant financial resources, education or job skills, to “get with the program” and become instant Americans — fully employed, fluent in English and financially independent overnight. If they do that, then it’s OK for them to stage an annual ethnic festival to celebrate their roots — like, say, the local Greek-American community.
If I’m reading Macdonald correctly, then he mirrors the sentiments of a sizable number of local residents, many of them descended from earlier immigrant stock. They’re suspicious of Somalis, resent the public resources devoted to them and distinguish the newcomers from their own foreign-born parents and grandparents by rationalizing, “When my ancestors came here as immigrants, they didn’t ask anyone for support. They worked hard to support themselves and their families.”
That may be true in a narrow sense, but it misses the point.
Their ancestors got no public financial assistance because hardly anyone received public assistance prior to the New Deal (with the exception of meager allotments under local “poor laws”).
Before the New Deal in the 1930s, assisting immigrants was mainly the province of churches and private charities. That help was hardly enough to prevent widespread starvation, illness and suffering among new immigrants. You only have to look at the stark early 20th century photographs of child labor conditions by Lewis Hine (who visited Lewiston) or peruse muckraking journalist Jacob Riis’s book on tenement life, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890), to get a sense of just how dreadful immigrant life really was.
For most immigrants, it took a generation or more to climb out of poverty and to assimilate. Many learned little or no English. Craving emotional security, the newcomers clung tenaciously to their native languages and customs. It was usually left to their offspring to learn to talk, dress and act like “Yankees.” Even as late as 1978, when I first moved to Lewiston-Auburn, I was surprised at the number of older Franco-Americans still using French as their primary language to transact business in local shops.
We should also recall that immigrants a century ago worked hard, not only because they had no choice but because there were plenty of low-wage, unskilled, grueling factory jobs (at least during economic boom periods). In fact, it was American manufacturers who encouraged mass immigration in order to create a ready pool of labor that would keep factory wages low and discourage unionization of the industrial workforce.
Today’s manufacturing is increasingly automated and requires less brawn and endurance than technical skill. And even the most low-level service jobs require at least minimal levels of fluency in English.
The net result is that government has increasingly shouldered the upfront costs of absorbing immigrants, with public subsidies for housing, food, health care, ESL school programs, job training, etc.
On the flip side, immigrants bring a lot of energy and innovation to our society, and they usually end up paying back the public investment in them many times over.
In a 2010 eye-opening economic study, “The Effect of Immigration on Productivity: Evidence from US States,” Prof. Giovanni Peri of the University of California at Davis concluded, based on statistical evidence, that immigration is associated with long-run economic productivity growth, particularly for less-educated workers.
And if this statistical study is too dry for you, take an immersion course in the immigrant experience. Travel to New York City, where immigrants make up about 40 percent of the population and number more than 3 million. With as many as 800 languages spoken, NYC is the most linguistically diverse city in the world.
As a result, the city bubbles with color, vitality and diversity, reinventing itself nearly every decade. Fascinating new neighborhoods seem to constantly spring up from the ruins of formerly blighted slums, and fantastic cuisine, fashion, art and entertainment abound. This isn’t just the new face of the Big Apple. It’s the future face of the United States.
I hope, therefore, that Mayor Macdonald and others who may be down on Lewiston’s Somalis will withhold their harsh words, if not their harsh judgments, and give the city’s latest immigrants half a chance.
Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder of Museum L-Aand an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He is the author of “Lucifer’s Child,”a recently published book about the 1984 oven-death murder of Angela Palmer. Hemay be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.