Maine is one of two states that is losing population, the U.S. Census reported last week. So now we’re not only the oldest state in the nation, with an economy that lags behind the rest of New England and the country, but we’re also the remarkable shrinking state.
At a moment when we should be opening a giant Welcome Center for people who want to come here to help us grow a new prosperity, the LePage administration is trying to make it impossible for legal immigrants who are not yet citizens to receive any help from local governments.
Never mind that we don’t allow those immigrants to work when they first get here or that they usually can’t get into English language classes for months and sometimes a year or more. Pay no attention to the fact that many of today’s immigrants are highly skilled professionals fleeing political turmoil in their own countries, sometimes because they’ve supported America. Or that these skilled immigrants grow new businesses at a faster rate than current Mainers do, creating both new wealth and jobs for all of us.
This action by the LePage administration has little to do with welfare reform and much to do with his re-election. It’s campaign season at LePage HQ, and that means it’s time to fire up the base with some good old fashioned “us-against-them” stuff. And no target is better than defenseless immigrants who also receive public assistance. That’s double bonus points in politics. Woohoo, boys, let’s go git’em!
Gov. Paul LePage has always had an obsession with the topic of welfare, and now he’s making it his legacy issue.
Not that the welfare system is perfect. It isn’t. But since LePage came to power, he’s been assailing welfare cheats as though they can be found in every cupboard. His administration undoubtedly has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to track down all the cheating they claim exists. The evidence they’ve produced amounts to a small mound of potatoes against a mountain of accusations.
Is this really where Maine’s governor should be putting so much of his energy and time? We have an economy that’s been struggling for decades against the forces of globalization and mechanization, particularly in natural resource industries that have long sustained us. We have a workforce in need of retraining and retooling. Meanwhile, a new wave of entrepreneurs is hard at work trying to grow the next economy, but with very little help from Augusta.
Like it or not, prepare yourself to hear a lot more during the coming campaign about welfare than about tomorrow’s economy. Welfare fires up LePage’s tea party base, and he needs them in an uproar to have any chance of winning re-election. Here’s what you should expect to hear: taxes, welfare, regulations, welfare, bureaucrats, welfare, bloated government and welfare.
Attacks on immigrants, however, are inspired by more than short-term politics. There isn’t any polite way to say this, but attacking immigrants is also about exploiting racial fears and stereotypes. In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Day and LePage will issue some platitudes about civil rights, but words cannot entirely disinfect the messages that his actions send.
Of course even the suggestion that race is a factor in politics ensures an overwrought and indignant denial, but appearances matter. In this case, two things are self-evident: Immigrants are increasingly people of color, and the business of politics is winning, often at any cost.
LePage’s very conservative politics may allow him to attack immigrants, but his personal story shouldn’t. Like nearly all Mainers, LePage is a descendant of immigrants. As a fellow Franco-American, he is probably just two or three generations removed from an ancestor who came here with little more than hope and courage, speaking a different language and practicing a different religion from earlier Mainers.
Imagine if LePage’s ancestors had faced the kinds of rules we now apply to immigrants; that they couldn’t work for at least six months and oftentimes far longer, or that they had to learn English and pass tests first. Now imagine the hardships his ancestors would have faced if the governor of that time, himself the product of earlier immigrants, called for denying public assistance to people from away.
They would have suffered terribly. The state would have lost jobs and opportunities for everyone. We’d be even less diverse than we are now, and even further behind economically.
When a descendant of immigrants works to deny help to today’s immigrants, he is not using either his head or his heart. He’s simply putting politics ahead of people.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a non-profit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]