When I moved to Waterville, I immediately felt the kindness and generosity of the community. Days after picking me up from the airport, the owner of Northeast Limo lent me his car — free of charge — so I could buy groceries for the week before my car arrived.
A year later, when my partner finally joined me in Waterville full time, a neighbor renovating his house gave her extra supplies and helped her build a shelf for our kitchen. He’s a Vietnam War veteran, and she’s a Vietnamese-American refugee. They struck up a conversation over home improvement.
These are kindnesses we’ll never forget.
Around that time she experienced another unforgettable moment, this one far from kind. It was the day after the 2016 presidential election. She was stopped at a light while driving to the grocery store alone when a man pulled up to her on a motorcycle and tapped on her window. Thinking he needed directions, she rolled down the window. Then he screamed at her, spit flying, “GO HOME!”
I thought of this terrible moment when I saw that Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro told Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg to “eat it” after Hogg pursued a boycott campaign against Fox News host Laura Ingraham. I certainly don’t blame the mayor for the actions of the man who told my partner — who became a naturalized U.S. citizen long before we met — to “go home.” But Isgro’s comment to Hogg was just the latest in a long history of similarly spiteful comments, many of them directed against immigrants and refugees. And vile rhetoric from elected officials can certainly plant seeds that grow into vile actions.
The style of politics that leads a grown man like Isgro to taunt a school shooting survivor is a broken and bereft style of politics. It emanates from the White House under President Donald Trump; it emanates from the State House under Gov. Paul LePage; and it emanates from the mayor’s office in Waterville. This politics of spite is bad for Waterville and bad for Maine.
Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric imperils our economic future. When spiteful politics attracts national media attention — as it did recently when former Republican State House candidate Leslie Gibson called another Parkland survivor a “ skinhead lesbian” — it not only embarrasses our region but also discourages growth that would benefit our state.
Immigrants strengthen the economy, raise wages for everyone and help revive economically struggling areas. Because Maine’s population is the oldest in the country, we need immigrants and young people to replenish the labor pool and sustain our economy and health care system. When elected officials like Isgro attack immigrants and refugees, they’re standing in the way of economic growth and discouraging qualified immigrants from filling shortages in crucial jobs, such as emergency medical technicians.
Telling kids to “eat it” or portraying immigration as an “invasion” also discourages young people from moving to our state to start a life and a family. A significant majority of millennials — nearly 80 percent — believe immigrants do more to strengthen than burden the country. And a large number of young Americans are themselves immigrants. Young people don’t want to make a life somewhere if it appears hostile to who they are or unwilling to address the state’s demographic challenges and economic future.
Colleges are another proven keystone of strong rural economies, but when politicians lash out against young people, they’re also sending an unfortunate message to prospective students at Maine’s many thriving colleges: not just “go home” but “don’t come.”
While we should be welcoming immigrants and young people to our communities, Isgro’s rhetoric does the opposite. In his social media posts, he portrays immigrants and refugees as invaders, as people not welcome here. He pits them against struggling Mainers, falsely portraying the American dream as a zero-sum game. Most of the immigrants and refugees he’s demonizing face circumstances so dire that, like my partner and her family years ago, they have no choice but to risk everything for a chance at survival in a bewilderingly foreign world.
What the mayor fails to realize, however, is that being mayor means fulfilling his civic duty to all of his constituents, not just the ones who were born here or the ones who agree with him or the ones who are politically expedient to support. Strong leadership requires compassion. Immigrants, refugees and their families are part of the Waterville community.
Any elected official who has a problem with that should find another line of work.
Aaron R. Hanlon is assistant professor of English in Colby College in Waterville.
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