PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Donald Trump’s characterization of Somalis as dangerous and a drag on resources could undo years of work that they have done to establish themselves in the country’s whitest state, Somali residents said Friday.
Trump told a packed audience in Portland last Thursday that Maine is a “major destination” for Somali refugees and that they’re coming from some of the “most dangerous” places. All told, about 10,000 Somalis lives in Portland and Lewiston, Maine’s largest cities.
The Somali Community Center of Maine said the Republican presidential candidate’s remarks were a setback for immigrants who have worked hard to become part of the state’s fabric over the past two decades.
Somalis began coming to Maine in the 1990s as part of a refugee resettlement effort in Portland. A housing shortage caused some to look to Lewiston, a former mill town 35 miles to the north, where apartments were cheaper.
Integration was not without challenges. Laurier Raymond, then Lewiston’s mayor, told Somalis to stop relocating to the city in 2002 because of what he called a strain on social services. A few years later, someone rolled a frozen pig’s head into a mosque, drawing widespread condemnation from the community and eventually criminal charges.
These days, Somalis and immigrants from other African communities attend public schools and run local businesses.
Portland school Superintendent Xavier Botana called the district’s Somali students “a shining example” of the strength of diversity. It’s common in both cities to see hijab-clad mothers shepherding children around playgrounds, something no one would have fathomed decades ago in the state that still has the lowest percentage of nonwhites in the U.S.
Other Somali communities have grown in places such as Minnesota and Columbus, Ohio.
Young men in Minnesota’s Somali community have been targeted by terror recruiters in recent years, and three Somali men who were accused of plotting to go to Syria to join the Islamic State group were convicted in June of conspiracy. There have been no such arrests in Maine.
Rick Bennett, the chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he did not think Trump’s comments in Portland were a declarative statement that Maine’s Somalis are dangerous. He added that the growth of Maine’s Somali community is “an example of legal immigration working.”
Earlier in his campaign, Trump said he would temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, though he more recently said people from certain countries would be subject to tougher screening. He has not identified which nations.
“As Maine knows, a major destination for Somali refugees, right? Am I right? Well, they’re all talking about it — Maine, Somali refugees,” Trump said Thursday. “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.”
His Portland appearance attracted a group of counter-demonstrators, including a handful of African immigrants.
On Friday afternoon, Somali organizers held a rally on the steps of City Hall to respond to Trump. One read a statement from Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, that called Trump’s comments “disparaging” and “unhelpful.”
Portland resident and immigrant organizer Pious Ali, originally from Ghana, said before the meeting that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us as a community.”