On Sunday, I was honored to speak at a rally for solidarity organized by the Portland Racial Justice Congress. Here are my remarks:
The United States has a complicated history when it comes to immigrants. On one hand, we have a proud tradition of being a place where people come seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Our very Constitution protects all people regardless of where they were born, and perhaps the greatest symbol of American values – the Statue of Liberty – offers refuge to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Yet on the other hand, we have not always been true to those ideals.
In the years following World War I, America was gripped by the fear that the Communist Revolution that had taken place in Russia would spread to the United States. As is often the case when fear outweighs rational debate, civil liberties paid the price. In 1919 and 1920, in what notoriously became known as the “Palmer Raids,” Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began rounding up and deporting immigrants.
In 1939, the steamer ship St. Louis, carrying 900 Jewish refugees, was turned away from the United States. With nowhere else to go, it returned to Europe – where hundreds of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust.
In the 1940s, President Roosevelt ordered all people of Japanese descent living in the United States to be sent to internment camps. Eventually, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and sent to these camps.
Today, we look back on those incidents with shame. They teach us that we must reject the urge to make policy based on fear. That we must resist the urge to single out people for different treatment, based on their religion or where they are from. And that we must learn from those mistakes, and NOT make them again. This time, right now, we can make the right decision.
Many of those who are now calling for the United States to turn their backs on immigrants are here because their parents or grandparents came to the United States from other countries. Governor LePage himself grew up speaking French in Lewiston, before earning two degrees and becoming the first Franco-American to be elected governor in Maine. New Americans make great contributions to our society, and we are a stronger and more vibrant nation when we welcome them.
We know that if we shut out refugees fleeing the horror and violence of extremists in places like Syria, we are refusing to help the victims of the very terror we decry. And we know that, if we do so, as a nation we will one day come to regret it – to once again look back on our mistake in shame. So today, and every day, we call on Maine’s elected officials to reject dangerous anti-refugee measures moving through Congress. Bills like the so-called American SAFE Act, which would make it nearly impossible for refugees from Syria and Iraq to come to America, do nothing to make us safer and instead hurt us as a nation.
As a state, and as a country, we pride ourselves on the protection of human rights and liberty. We must uphold those values in the decisions we make during these challenging times. Now, more than ever, we must show courageous and bold leadership, and resist condemning people because of where they are from. We must continue to open our arms wide and say welcome to the United States. Welcome to Maine.