WATERVILLE — America always has opened its doors to the world, for jobs, for freedom and for sanctuary and will continue to do so, but without reliving a past when there was unlimited immigration.

That was part of the message Wednesday night from Waterville native and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell during a fundraising endowment dinner for St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church.

“We can not return to a time in our early years when anybody could come here,” Mitchell said. “It’s a physical, practical and political impossibility. We have to have reasonable restraints on who can come, from where and how many. No one can rationally argue that we can again open the doors to everyone.

“The challenge that comes is how we do it in a way that’s fair and in our own interest.”

Mitchell said the debate this campaign season is on how to keep people out and who to keep out, rather than focusing on who should be invited in.

Without naming Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump directly in his remarks to the assembly Wednesday night, Mitchell said later that American was founded on immigration and flourished as new waves of people came from distant shores.

At a rally in Portland Aug. 4, Trump put the focus on Maine’s Somali refugees, linking them to criminal activity.

“I don’t have anything to say to him or about him,” Mitchell said after his speech in the basement dining hall of the church in his old Head of Falls neighborhood in Waterville. “I believe that our country has benefited from immigration in the past. There have been mistakes and excesses, and we have to correct them and we obviously can not go back to the past when immigration was unlimited.

“We should not be focusing on how we decide who will come, and part of that ought to focus on the contributions that people can make even in the unlikeliest of circumstances.”

Mitchell was born in Waterville in 1933 and grew up at Head of Falls, a Lebanese and French Canadian community off Front Street across from the church, which in 2017 will celebrate its 90th anniversary of its founding by Lebanese immigrants. The family later moved across the railroad tracks to 94 Front St., into a house that still stands just down the street from City Hall.

Speaking without notes Wednesday night, Mitchell recounted how he and others lived their young lives “a couple hundred yards” from the church. Nobody knew they were poor, because everyone lived as their neighbors did.

“For us it was our world, and it was a wonderful world,” he said. “I believe in the American dream because I have lived it.”

He said French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Irish and people from the Middle East all came to American for a better life. There was discrimination, but people lived their lives, raised their families and built upon their dreams.

“The greatness of America is, of course, that we have overcome every obstacle; we have confronted every wrong; we have done our best to correct the mistakes that we’ve made,” Mitchell said. “We’re all human, individuals, and as a society, mistakes are inevitable because perfection is reserved to the Lord.”

Even God’s representatives on this Earth are human, he said of Rev. Larry Jensen, pastor of the church, to chuckles from the crowd.

Mitchell noted the irony of the only class of immigrants who were welcomed to the New World — Africans — arrived in chains and cages — doomed to a life of slavery.

As for immigration itself, Mitchell asked rhetorically where the United States would be without the founders of Apple, Amazon and Google — all of whom came from immigrant families.

Mitchell, whose father was a groundskeeper at Colby College and whose mother came by boat from Lebanon, is a graduate of Waterville High School, Bowdoin College and Georgetown University Law School.

Mitchell served as Democratic Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton as special envoy to Northern Ireland, a country embroiled in “The Troubles” over religion and the push for freedom of the six counties of the north from England. He helped negotiate a peace agreement signed in 1998. Mitchell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating Northern Ireland’s peace agreement.

Mitchell was U.S. special envoy to the Middle East under President Barack Obama in 2011, and in 2006, he was asked by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig to investigate reported use of performance-enhancing drugs by players. The Mitchell Report, as it was called, was instrumental in drawing attention to suspected widespread use of steroids in baseball.

As for the upcoming presidential election, Mitchell said he believes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will win.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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