Donald Trump’s characterization of Somalis as dangerous and a drag on resources could undo years of work that Somalis have done to establish themselves in the country’s whitest state, Somali residents said Friday.
Trump told a packed audience in Portland on Thursday that Maine was a “major destination” for Somali refugees and that they were coming from some of the “most dangerous” places. All told, about 10,000 Somalis live 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.
“It is damaging to the psyche of our youth to hear a major party presidential nominee insult our culture and religion, especially while standing next to the governor of our state,” the community center said in a statement. “We condemn his name-calling, scapegoating and the lies perpetrated by his campaign.”
Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who supports Trump and has sparred with immigrant groups in the past, introduced Trump at Thursday’s events. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, characterized Trump’s comments as “disparaging” and “unhelpful.”
The comments drew widespread criticism in Portland, a liberal city that has the largest population in the state. Collins released a statement Friday that said Maine had a long history of benefiting from immigration, “including our friends from Somalia.”
Collins has not endorsed Trump.
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.