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.”

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 [email protected]


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