Lewiston, Maine – — Richard Rodrigue stood in the back of a banquet hall, watching his blond, blue-eyed daughter mingle among her high school classmates. These teenagers speak dozens of languages, and hail from a dozen African nations.
They had fled brutal civil war, famine and oppressive regimes to find themselves here, at a pre-prom fete in this once-dying New England mill town, revived by an influx of some 7,500 immigrants over the last 16 years. Rodrigue smiled and waved at his daughter, proud she is a part of it.
“It will help her in life,” he said. “The world is not all white.”
Rodrigue believes the refugees resuscitated his town — plugging the population drain that had threatened to cripple it, opening shops and restaurants in boarded-up storefronts. But he also agrees with Donald Trump that there should be no more of them, at least not now.
His working-class community, built along the banks of the Androscoggin River in the whitest state in America, is a place that some point to as proof that refugee integration can work. And yet for the first time in 30 years, voters in Androscoggin County chose a Republican for president, endorsing Trump’s nativist zeal against the very sort of immigrants who share their streets and their schools.
The mills that line the river sit mostly shuttered today, and a quarter of children grow up poor in the county of 107,000. So Trump’s supporters here tie their embrace of his immigration clampdown to their economic anxieties.
“There’s got to be a point in time when you have to say, ‘Whoa, let’s get the working people back up. Let’s bring the money in.’ But they keep coming, keep coming,” Rodrigue said. “I guess it just boils down to: What’s enough?”
No one invited the Somali refugees to Lewiston. They fled bullets and warlords to eventually be chosen for resettlement in big American cities.
In early 2001, a few refugee families struggling to afford housing in Portland ventured 30 miles north and found a city in retreat. Empty downtown stores were ringed by sagging apartment buildings.
The refugees saw possibility in Lewiston’s decay. Friends and families followed. The town morphed in a matter of months into a laboratory for what happens when culture suddenly shifts. Maine’s population is 94 percent white, and its citizens were abruptly confronted with hundreds of black Muslims, barely able to speak English.
Ardo Mohamed fled Mogadishu in the 1990s, when militiamen burst into her home and started shooting. She watched her father die, as the rest of the family escaped into the woods. They wound up in refugee camps, separated for years, then finally Atlanta, then Lewiston in 2001.
“We wanted to be safe,” said the mother of five, “just like you do.”
When the refugees began arriving, Tabitha Beauchesne was a student at Lewiston High School. Her new classmates were poor, as was Beauchesne. It felt to her then, and it still feels to her now, that the refugees got more help than her family.
“They just seemed to take over,” she said.
Beauchesne doesn’t consider herself racist, though acknowledges that race and religion likely play a role in her sense that the refugees overwhelmed her community. She’s now a stay-at-home mother of two, and she left Lewiston to move to another school district in the county because she believes immigrant students monopolize teachers’ attention.
Once a Barack Obama supporter, Beauchesne turned to Trump — and she cheers his efforts to curb the flow of refugees into the United States. She wants Trump to design a tax system that funnels less of her money to aiding those from other countries.
“I just don’t like giving money away that’s not benefiting me and, not to sound selfish, but then seeing it benefit other people,” she said. “As a business owner, my husband wouldn’t donate $500 to the Salvation Army if we couldn’t afford it. Our country needs to do the same thing.”
Taxpayers do help some of the immigrants, whose population exploded as Somali refugees gave way to those seeking asylum, from Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, among more than a dozen nations in all. Still, many of the newcomers work, said Catherine Besteman, a professor of anthropology at Maine’s Colby College.
Maine’s immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa made $136.6 million in income in 2014, and paid $40 million in taxes, according to one report from a bipartisan think-tank. But Besteman said they work invisible jobs: They take out trash at hotels, do the laundry at the hospital. People don’t see them working, so it’s easy to assume they are living off handouts.
Republican leaders — from the president to the governor to the local GOP — have seized on the resentment that breeds. The county Republican party routinely rails against what it calls “the refugee racket” and complains that the school system is forced to accommodate 34 languages.
Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster acknowledges that does cost money. But he has a statistic he likes to share with critics.
An average of 78.3 percent of immigrant students graduate from his district within five years, compared to an average of 73.3 percent of native-born students. And now some of those immigrant children are going off to college to get degrees, as teachers, doctors, engineers. Two years ago, immigrant children led the high school soccer team to win the state championship — a moment heralded as a triumph of cultural cooperation.
“If the immigrant population hadn’t happened,” Webster said, “Lewiston would be a community that was contracting, and potentially in a downward death spiral.”
Yet many on the outskirts of Lewiston have quietly stewed over the change in their county — and Trump’s “America First” message rings especially true with them.
Thirty miles up the highway, David Lovewell stood in the parking lot of the paper mill where he used to work, before it shed hundreds of jobs. Now he runs a logging company with his sons just outside the town of Livermore Falls. A few months ago, business got so bad he laid off eight employees.
He looked down at his sneakers, bought for $25 at Wal-Mart. There used to be two shoe factories nearby.
Lovewell doesn’t like to talk about immigration. He went on a cruise to Belize with his wife several years ago, and bought a carving from an old man whose hands were so worn from years of whittling they looked like leather. He remembers those hands, and the man’s dirt-floor shack with no doors and his skinny dog and the kids riding around on broken bicycles.
“I struggled with it, when he did the travel ban,” Lovewell said of Trump. “At the same time, I’m seeing ... people losing their jobs. Why are we so worried about immigrants coming into our country when we can’t really take care of our own people?”
So Lovewell looks to Trump to strike a better balance — to build an economy where his sons don’t have to battle to barely get by and, after that, design an immigration system that keeps America’s promise of open arms.
“I guess it could sound like bigotry,” he said. “But we’re hurting. Americans are hurting.”
Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.
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