Last month, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald created a public firestorm with his statement to the British Broadcasting Corp. that immigrants should “leave their culture at the door.” He fanned the flames by blaming others, and his refusals to apologize triggered fruitless calls for his resignation.
Macdonald partly blamed his troubles on my hometown, Portland, and the Maine Global Institute, a statewide organization I founded to address the state’s flat-population growth, which is a recipe for economic decline.
Of greater concern is how his words reflect a history of immigrant cultural hostilities. They are of national and international significance and explain the CBS News national and BBC international coverage of Lewiston’s decade-long integration of its growing African community. Why else feature Macdonald in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Huffington Post?
More troubling is that his remarks come when this nation is ending its highest immigration growth since the early 20th century. Maine will lose population unless it encourages more — not less — immigration.
The U.S. Census data indicate that, without African migration last year, Maine would have been at the bottom of the population growth chain. Leading thinkers and reasonable business leaders know the Macdonald-like rhetoric is not the kind of “open for business” welcome urban cities, like Lewiston or Portland, expect as regional contributors to Maine’s economic growth. Less human capital keeps the Pine Tree State as this nation’s least diverse and most elderly state.
In times of crisis, assessments like the one Macdonald made resonate at all levels of democracy. Since 2000, we’ve experienced the 9/11 tragedy and a declining American economy that bottomed-out four years ago. The leading demographic across the country is the estimated 30 million Latinos destined to alter our political culture. For Maine, a similar demographic cultural change is African in nature.
Overshadowed by a burdensome and dysfunctional federal immigration system, the nation’s established cultural interests, long-time civil rights activists and business leaders are ambiguous when addressing the national economic need for high- and low-skilled immigrants of legal or refugee status, those seeking asylum or illegally drawn to states like Maine.
We saw this ambiguity in Maine’s largest and most diverse city. In 2010, Portland leaders were indifferent, if not opposed, to an almost-passed initiative that would have given legal immigrants the right to vote in local elections.
The hard truth is much of the media, political and business leadership mirrored local anxieties about increasing African and/or Muslim immigrant civic participation. Responsible urban leaders are instinctively aware of Macdonald-like local voices quick to privately label immigrants as parasites who take Maine jobs and public services.
The reality is Macdonald’s troubling cultural observations permeate a changing Maine and American life. Such sentiment is very much on the minds of Portland elected officials; just ask its mayor and city council. As a candidate for Portland mayor in 2011, I listened to such “Macdonaldisms” from otherwise thoughtful voters. Crude language aside, I got an earful of complaints, often factually flawed, about immigrants and their relationship to government spending and the economy.
In a struggling economy, Maine leaders are reluctant to generally make arrivals from other states or countries a high-priority public policy. But beware a potential long-term unintended consequence of benign neglect: social instability.
The good news is the global significance surrounding last month’s Lewiston controversy can become a teachable moment. Like the nation itself, Maine needs more engaged public and private leaders having conversations about inevitable demographic change.
The MGI was founded to encourage stepped-up civic and business discourse in public roundtables, celebrations and educational outreach. A series of Maine baby steps are needed to positively address immigration.
When it comes to decreased public services, common ground exists between immigrants in and outside America and people from rural, declining Maine regions. Public events can be structured to bring cities in greater Portland, the urban drivers of Maine’s economic growth, closer to both forms of migration needed for a changing, more productive workforce.
What better way to begin than through public-private sector efforts in cities like Lewiston and Portland? An urban resolve can begin a positive acknowledgement of the unavoidable cultural change we now see in our cities and towns.
Ralph Carmona is executive director of the Maine Global Institute. A retired business executive in energy and financial services, he is a University of California regent emeritus who presently teaches international relations at Southern Maine Community College.