What is behind some of the anti-immigration fervor that helped give rise to Donald Trump? In one American county that has been transformed by an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers, the answer is complicated. In the past 16 years, 7,500 African immigrants helped revive Androscoggin County, Maine, and the once-dying mill town of Lewiston. They opened shops and restaurants in boarded-up storefronts. Their children led the high school soccer team to win the state championship – a moment heralded as a triumph of cultural cooperation.
And yet, for the first time in three decades, 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. Some talk openly about their indignation, built on the belief that the immigrants take more than they give. Others sigh and hesitate, afraid to seem racist or indifferent to the pain and poverty of others. Many echoed one native Mainer: America is struggling, and needs to take care of its own before it takes care of anyone else.
Here some of the county’s 107,000 residents talk about the issue that has consumed much of Trump’s presidency so far.
When the refugees began arriving – first from Somalia and then Angola, Burundi, Rwanda and more – Tabitha Beauchesne was a student at the high school in Lewiston. Her new classmates were poor, but Beauchesne was poor, too. She grew up in a struggling family in housing projects downtown. 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. She doesn’t consider herself racist, though acknowledges that race and religion likely play a role in her sense that the refugees overwhelmed her community. The African Muslims, many of whom wear hijabs, stand out far more than her French-Canadian ancestors did when they arrived generations ago, she said.
That perception – one of being inundated by a culture so different from her own – ingrained in her a sense of injustice so deep it persists to this day.
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 the refugee 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.”
Richard Rodrigue appreciates the positive changes immigration has brought to his community, and yet he agrees with Trump that America must slow the flow of migration for now.
Rodrigue believes immigrants resuscitated the town of Lewiston, plugging the population drain that had threatened to cripple it, opening new shops and restaurants. But America is struggling, he says, and needs to take care of its own before it takes care of anyone else.
Rodrigue’s grandfather was an immigrant who fled poverty in Quebec and moved to Maine to toil his whole life in the textile mills. He never learned English, faced hate and discrimination. Two generations later, Rodrigue owns a successful security company, lives in a tidy house in a quiet neighborhood and makes plans to send his daughter to college.
Immigration worked for him. But it feels different today, he said, as his county tries to find its footing. Sprawling mills sit mostly shuttered. A quarter of children grow up poor. Taxpayers pick up the welfare tab. So Rodrigue ties his embrace of Trump’s immigration clampdown to those 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? Is that wrong? Am I wrong? Am I bad? That’s how I feel.”
David Lovewell used to work at a paper mill in Androscoggin County that has shed hundreds of jobs. Now he runs a logging company with his sons, but he sees a dim future for them. A few months ago, business got so bad he laid off eight employees and fell behind on his $5,500 monthly payments on the machines he uses to cut down trees.
Lovewell doesn’t like to talk about immigration. He sighs and rubs his head, afraid to seem indifferent to pain and poverty around the world. He went on a cruise to Belize with his wife several years ago, when he still worked at the mill and could afford a vacation. He stopped to buy a carving from an old man whose hands were so worn from years of whittling they looked like leather. He remembers those hands still, and the man’s dirt-floor shack with no doors and his skinny, starving 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 he’s looking to Trump to strike a better balance – to build an economy where his sons don’t have to battle to barely get by, and only 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.”
Ardo Mohamed came to Lewiston in 2001, among the first immigrant families to arrive. She fled Mogadishu in the 1990s, when militiamen burst into the home she shared with her parents and nine siblings, and started shooting. She watched her father die, as the rest of the family escaped into the woods.
They wound up in overcrowded refugee camps, separated for years, then finally Atlanta, then Lewiston. Now she fries sambusas with her sister at a shop she owns downtown.
“We wanted to be safe,” said the mother of five, “just like you do.”
But she said there seems to be more tension in town since Trump took office. One woman reported she was nearly run down by a screaming driver; another said someone jerked her hijab and told her to go back where she came from.
Mohamed is an American citizen now. Her children were born in the United States. But they worry the government will come to send her away.
“We are scared,” she said. “They say every night, ‘Mom, if they take you, where we do live?’”
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