In the past several days we have heard a disturbing build up of rhetoric about refugees from elected officials throughout the world, the country, and in Maine. We feel that this rhetoric is not only unfortunate and sad, but it also feeds movements that go against many of the principles on which this country was founded.
It also ties in directly with two HHRC projects. The first is the current version of our surplus chalkboard project, which is discussed in the opinion essay below, and the second is our upcoming exhibit – Yearning to Breathe Free: The Immigrant Experience in Maine.
Whether you agree or not, we encourage open and respectful discussion and reflection on the role that immigrants have played in the creation of our state.
Immigration in Maine
In the wake of the world’s response to the tragedies in Paris and Beirut this week, our Governor has announced that he would oppose any efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Maine. While our history is crowded with efforts to limit groups of people from coming to the US, there is little question that immigration has been one of the most important factors in making the US a world power, and is, arguably, the key to Maine’s success as a state.
U.S. law is very clear on immigration. The issue is under Federal control, based on article six of the Constitution, and has been reviewed several times by the Supreme Court, most notably in Hines vs Davidowitz in 1940.
Since the end of the Civil War, when Republican Governor Samuel Cony declared “From the very foundation of our government, it has been our policy to invite the freest immigration from every portion of the earth,” Maine has had a love/hate relationship with its immigrants. But for this Governor to take an anti-immigrant stance seems somewhat disingenuous. The largest group of immigrants to Maine in the 19th century were French Canadians, including the Governor’s ancestors. At the time, there was also a good deal of rhetoric and discrimination against them. Most people know that the Ku Klux Klan movement in Maine in the 1920s was mostly focused on the French-Catholic immigrants from Canada. Governor LePage has talked about the racism he felt growing up in “Little Canada” in Lewiston. He is, by all accounts, a self-made man, and a proud model of the success an immigrant can have in Maine, as are our Senator Collins (Irish and English), former Senator Snowe (Greek), former Senator Mitchell (Lebanese), and many other prominent Mainers.
This fall at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, we have had a chalkboard in the lobby asking visitors “What Country Are Your Ancestors From?” After two months, the board is filled with answers that reveal that Maine, like the rest of the country, is made up of people from all over the world. Of course we’d expect to see Canada, France, Ireland, England, Sweden, Germany, Finland, and many western European countries listed on the board. But we might be surprised to see Guam, Jamaica, Belarus, Senegal, Lithuania, Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Russia, Poland, China, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, Iceland, Australia, Rwanda, Lebanon, and Sudan were listed, and of course, a few people wrote that their ancestors are Native American.
Maine is a rich tapestry made up of individuals from around the world, and while we know that most immigrants and all refugees are vetted, we disagree with the concept that someone should be considered a subversive or a danger to the American people simply because of their country of origin, religion, color of their skin, sexual orientation, or any other broad measure of a group of people. That’s surely not an American or Maine measure of a person. As Dr. King suggested many years ago, we should measure people by the content of their character. Maine’s character is clearly composed of people from all over the world. Rather than opposing those who would seek refuge in a safe land and contribute to our society, we should embrace them and remember, in their quest for a new home, they’re very much like our own ancestors.
David Greenham, HHRC Program Director, on behalf of the HHRC Board of Directors and Staff