Attacking people who are the “other” is one of the oldest rallying cries. Building fear of minorities — racial and religious — has been the foundation of nationalist movements and the cause of wars for centuries.
It is also a common campaign theme. Fear, after all, is a great motivator. It is not, however, a way to encourage growth and advancement in a state struggling to get its economic bearings. Worse, it is morally wrong.
In this election cycle, Mainers are hearing a lot about “illegal immigrants.” It is an odd place to focus attention in the whitest state in the country, where a lack of people is a major hindrance to economic growth and prosperity.
Last week, Gov. Paul LePage suggested to a crowd at a senior residence in Brewer that Maine look to China for tips on building a wall to keep these “illegal aliens” out. “They are going to our schools, and that’s a real problem for me,” the governor, who is running against Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, said.
“If we can’t build a fence high enough … we ought to go to China and see how they built a wall,” he said. Sadly, this got laughs from the senior crowd.
The Maine Republican Party had previously sent out campaign mailers claiming that “Michaud’s failed policies helped create the illegal immigration crisis.”
These ads are overly simplistic and disingenuous on many levels. This year has seen an influx of immigrants, especially unaccompanied children, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, which is stressing federal border and immigration agencies. It’s an issue Congress must address. Few, if any, of these children have come to Maine.
Who are these people trying to get to America? Like previous generations of immigrants, many are seeking to avoid violence and desperation in their home countries. Parents send their children, with what little money the family has saved, on a risky journey to a faraway country for a better life. Imagine how bleak the future must look to send a child away knowing you may never see her again.
Adult immigrants typically come to the U.S. for work. Many are hired for low-wage jobs, such as picking crops, thinning trees and cleaning hotel rooms — jobs that pay too little to entice American workers. Many send money back to families they haven’t seen for years. Some start their own businesses. They become consumers in our local economies.
Many immigrants enter the U.S. illegally, but certainly not all. Those seeking political asylum must await a lengthy court process, and they must prove they faced serious harm, even death, from staying in or returning to their home country.
Picking on this vulnerable group through our basest instinct — fear — is morally repugnant.
For a state in desperate need of more people, it also sends the wrong message. Last year, economists and demographic researchers warned that Maine was reaching a tipping point where the number of deaths is exceeding the number of births and the state’s working-age population is decreasing faster than it is being replaced. Without arrivals from outside Maine, this trend may not be reversible, which would have devastating consequences for the state’s businesses, communities and larger economy.
“Within the forecast horizon we can see pretty clearly, into the 2020s, there will be two issues,” former State Economist Charles Colgan said last year. “People simply won’t be able to find the workers at all … or in order to find the workers, they’ll have to recruit them from outside of Maine. That will increase the cost of hiring people. We’ll have to be much more competitive in how we compensate people.”
The U.S. has prospered as a welcoming country. In Maine, one way to limit our chances for future prosperity is to take down the welcome signs by stigmatizing people who could contribute to the state’s growth.