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  • Let Syrian refugees contribute to Maine's history of imagrants

    In the wake of the world’s response to the tragedies in Paris and Beirut, Maine’s 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 U.S., there is little question that immigration has been one of the most important factors in making the U.S. 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 VI of the U.S. Constitution, and has been reviewed several times by the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in Hines v. Davidowitz in 1940.

    Since the end of the Civil War, when Republican Gov. 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 also was 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. Gov. Paul 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 Sen. Susan Collins (Irish and English), former Sen. Olympia Snowe (Greek), former Sen. George Mitchell (Lebanese) and many other prominent Mainers.

    This fall at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta, we have had a question on the 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. Martin Luther King Jr. 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.