LEWISTON — Ten years after a Lewiston mayor set off a firestorm by saying the city’s Somali population was growing too fast, a new mayor’s remarks about the immigrant community is sparking another wave of anger and calls for his resignation.
Somali immigrants and their supporters in this former mill city in central Maine say Mayor Robert Macdonald should apologize and step down for what they call repeated anti-immigrant remarks, including telling a British Broadcasting Corp. interviewer that immigrants should “accept our culture and leave your culture at the door.”
A group of about 50 protesters rallied outside City Hall on Thursday before delivering 1,400 petitions to Macdonald’s office, asking for his resignation.
The mayor’s remarks sounded like he was telling immigrants to abandon their religion, their language and their identities, said Nimo Yonis, 26, one of an about 6,000 Somali refugees who live in Lewiston and the neighboring city of Auburn. The mayor’s words were painful, hurtful and “represent hate,” she said.
“Basically, he’s telling us to forget who we were,” Yonis said. “Just leaving your culture at the door is leaving what you believe, what you stand for and who you are at the door.”
Macdonald has attempted to clarify his comments, saying immigrants should try to assimilate into American culture. He has said his comments were taken out of context, and has claimed he never said anything derogatory about Somalis.
Macdonald was not in his office Thursday and didn’t immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press.
His words have rekindled memories of a decade ago when then-Mayor Larry Raymond wrote a letter in 2002 asking Somali leaders to discourage friends and family from relocating to Lewiston, saying the city’s resources were “maxed-out.”
The first Somali immigrants arrived in Lewiston in early 2001, moving 40 miles north of Portland because of plentiful, cheap housing. By the time Raymond wrote his letter, nearly 1,000 Somalis had moved to the Lewiston area.
The outrage over his letter attracted international attention and spurred a 4,000-person rally at Bates College, urging Mainers to embrace the influx of immigrants. During the rally, a small number of white supremacists who called for the expulsion of the Somalis gathered elsewhere in the city.
With the current mayor, critics say Macdonald has made repeated inflammatory remarks about the Somali population.
He wrote in a local weekly newspaper that “submissive Somali women turn into obnoxious customers at the grocery store cash register.” He also wrote that he was tired of news stories about Somalis being treated poorly; most complaints, he wrote, came from “boo-hoo white do-gooders and their carpetbagger friends.”
He later told a reporter that immigrants shouldn’t “insert your culture, which obviously isn’t working, into ours, which does.”
Mark Cayer, president of the Lewiston City Council, read a statement Thursday on behalf of the whole council saying the mayor’s comments were his alone and not representative of the council or the city as a whole.
The letter written by Raymond in 2002 and Macdonald’s words last month are “two totally different scenarios and two different moments in time,” he said.
“But clearly there was division in the community at that time, and there’s still evidence of a division now,” he said. “But overall I think the community will grow from this.”