Donald Trump attempted to localize his divisive doom and gloom stump speech during a visit to Portland last week, speaking of Somali refugees in Maine as he denounced the U.S.’s immigration policies and warned that immigrant populations were breeding grounds for crime and terrorism. His attempts to smear Maine’s Somali-Americans were hateful, disgusting and inappropriate, but also inaccurate.
“We’ve just seen many, many crimes getting worse all the time, and as Maine knows — a major destination for Somali refugees — right, am I right?” he said after speaking about the dangers of “radical Islamic terrorism” during a nearly hourlong speech at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. “Well, they’re all talking about it. Maine. Somali refugees. We admit hundreds of thousands — you admit, into Maine, and to other places in the United States — hundreds of thousands of refugees, and they’re coming from among the most dangerous territories and countries anywhere in the world.”
First, a few facts. In 2014, about 7,500 new immigrants, defined as those living in the U.S. for a year or less, lived in Maine. The largest number were born in Iraq and India. In terms of refugees, most have come from Iraq and Somalia in recent years.
Yes, these immigrants are fleeing from the “most dangerous” places. They are coming to the U.S., and going to other countries, to escape the very terror that Trump shamefully says they will bring here.
In Lewiston, home to about 7,000 residents who came from Somalia, the crime rate fell by more than 23 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to state data. Further, there is ample evidence that immigrants, regardless of legal status, are less likely to commit violent crimes than the native-born population.
The appropriate response to Trump’s opportunistic attempt to smear new Maine residents is to remind him that these immigrants, whether they are from Somalia, Iraq, Burundi or another country, are welcome and vital members of our communities. They serve on our school boards, protect us as police officers and members of our military and help us recover from illness and injury.
Yet, when asked about Trump’s warning to Mainers to be wary of Somalis because of the dangers of terrorism and crime, Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett, who sat on the stage behind Trump, said that’s not what he heard.
“I didn’t interpret what he said as blaming Somalis for crime or a breeding ground for terrorism,” he said. Instead, he said, Trump was bringing light to illegal immigration and inadequacies in the U.S.’s immigrant screening process. Maine’s Somali refugees entered the country legally and were screened by several agencies before arrival.
Such denials from Republican Party officials — elected and otherwise — have allowed Trump and his hateful, bigoted and xenophobic rhetoric, which is being repeated by his most ardent supporters, to be minimized and normalized. Trump isn’t “telling it like it is.” He is using racial and religious hatred to boost his own political prospects with no regard for the consequences or for the truth.
The day after Trump’s Somali fear mongering, a well-respected Republican state lawmaker, Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, emphatically declared: “Donald Trump is not fit to be president.”
“Nor does he reflect the deep diversity and tolerance of what it means to be Americans,” he wrote in a column published by the Kennebec Journal.
Katz called on “nationally prominent Republicans” to join him in declaring Trump unfit for the presidency, not just stopping at criticism for his vitriolic rhetoric.
They “tepidly endorse him, reserving final judgment to see if ‘he can get back on message’ or ‘stop making these mistakes.’ I just don’t understand that,” Katz wrote.
“What they are really saying is that Trump will have their support if he will just agree to listen to his handlers, stop speaking his true feelings, and stick to the teleprompter. That makes no sense to me — as if a disciplined speech can whitewash his vitriol.”
We strongly concur.