Today’s word is “tragicomedy.”
Never heard of it? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it’s “a drama or a situation blending tragic and comic elements.”
You guessed it. We’re talking about Gov. Paul LePage and his dogged search for the elusive “Maine Eight” – the handful of unaccompanied alien children who have found temporary refuge here while the federal government sorts out who gets to stay in the United States and who gets deported back to their country of origin.
That is no laughing matter – especially when viewed against the backdrop of the 52,000 children (and counting) who so far this fiscal year have crossed into this country from Mexico. The vast majority have fled violence, abuse and other horrors in their Central America homelands, only to be picked up and corralled by border agents as they step onto American soil.
So where’s the funny?
That would be the governor’s claim Tuesday that Maine “simply can’t afford” the aforementioned eight little wanderers now in our midst. LePage’s latest lament was manna from heaven (once again) for Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.
“Folks, I never realized Maine was in such dire financial straits,” Colbert deadpanned to his million-plus viewers Wednesday. “They’re just one Octomom away from bankruptcy!”
(We’re also, at long last, just a few months away from dropping the curtain on our chief executive-turned-late-night-punchline.)
It’s hard to know where to begin with LePage’s latest bout of righteous indignation – spoon fed to him, as usual, by minds far more sophisticated than his. As Fox News’ Eric Bolling put it this week while complaining that the unaccompanied alien children’s locations aren’t being divulged, “Apparently illegals’ privacy – their rights – trump America’s right to know.” Right to know what? Where to start picketing? Where to direct anonymous threats? Where to scare the life out of children who have already experienced enough trauma to last a lifetime?
LePage would like us to believe that he stumbled into this latest brouhaha with a simple question during a conference call he and other governors had Tuesday with officials from the Obama administration. How many unaccompanied alien children, he asked, have been placed in Maine?
The answer: Eight.
Do the math. That’s .015 percent of the total number of children who have crossed into the United States from Mexico since last fall. That’s .003 percent of the number of Maine children under the age of 18. That’s .00006 percent of the state’s overall population.
That doesn’t even qualify as a drop in the bucket – let alone a headline-grabbing stunt by a guy who, lest he forget, grew up himself speaking a language other than English.
Yet here we have LePage, in full re-election campaign mode, stoking his tea party base with blather like this: “It is wrong for the federal government to force a higher burden on the people of Maine to pay for those who come to our country illegally, especially when the government secretly places illegal aliens in our state without our knowledge.”
And here we have LePage mouthpiece Adrienne Bennett saying (presumably with a straight face) in an email to the Press Herald on Wednesday: “Governors need to know whether these unaccompanied alien children have had health and medical assessments, how long they will be staying in their states and how much financial assistance the federal government is going to provide for housing, medical care, education, etc. Maine citizens have the right to know this information as well.”
First, note that recurring “right to know” phrase. Along with the words “illegal aliens’ rights” and “trump,” it’s been lighting up conservative blogs and websites across the land since the start of business Monday.
As for Bennett’s anything-but-convincing hand-wringing over the welfare of Maine’s new arrivals, the information she and her boss seek is but a few Google clicks away:
Housing? Check. The kids have been placed with their own relatives or with Maine foster families – folks who, for the record, are doing God’s work.
Medical care? Check. The kids have all been medically screened and any future care will be covered in full by the federal government. (This should come as good news to the reader who fretted on the Press Herald website this week about kids landing on our doorstep with “drug resistant tb, scabies, or lice.”)
Education? Assuming these children ever set foot in a Maine classroom (the average foster placement is about 35 days), is anyone out there seriously worried about the fiscal impact he or she will have on Maine’s public education system?
To be sure, this country’s immigration policy is a train wreck – thanks in large part to far-right Republicans in Congress who a) reflexively oppose the Obama administration’s proposed reforms no matter how much sense they make, b) demonize any and all aliens who risk death if only to catch a whiff of the American Dream and c) see race-based fear-mongering not as a blemish on their humanity, but rather as red meat for their all-white masses.
But by using eight helpless children to bring that fight home to Maine, LePage isn’t, as Bennett put it (cue the laugh track), “concerned about these unaccompanied alien children just as many Mainers are.”
He’s concerned about his own political skin – even as an entire nation laughs at him in disbelief.
He’s concerned about sticking to talking points that, with each passing week, read more and more like they’re coming straight from a national Republican teleprompter.
He’s concerned about maintaining his tough-guy persona – even if it means going after scared, helpless kids. Not to belabor his oft-told life story, but didn’t LePage once walk in similar shoes?
Wednesday afternoon, looking for an escape from the comedy that is Stephen Colbert and the tragedy that is Paul LePage, I called the Rev. Michael Seavey, pastor/administrator for four Roman Catholic parishes on Portland’s peninsula and islands. A few weeks ago, a mutual friend forwarded me a sermon by Seavey titled, from the Gospel of Matthew, “Come to me all who labor and are burdened.”
Reacting at the time to news out of Murietta, California, of a mob that stopped and turned around a busload of undocumented women and children en route to a federal holding facility, Seavey said the protesters’ actions went far beyond legitimate debate over immigration policy.
“They had every right to gather in their town parks or streets and march, make speeches and even pray for relief,” Seavey said from the pulpit. “But focusing their rage onto people guilty only of illegally crossing a nation’s border for their families’ safety and security, manifests the darker side of the human condition. This is a primordial darkness, fueled by fear. This ancient darkness divides communities into those welcomed and those despised, fosters violence towards the ‘other,’ and left unabated can darken the soul with an all-consuming hate.”
Seavey, who’s also penned a seven-part series on immigration for his blog (http://portlanddiocese.org/FrMichaelSeavey), told me he hasn’t looked into the Maine situation deeply enough to comment on it.
But he did say his sermon received an overwhelmingly positive response – along with “a handful (that were) very negative, very angry.”
Seavey’s simple response, then and now: Regardless of where they come from and why, “people have a right to be treated with dignity.”
Fortunately, that thread of humanity already resides deep inside most Mainers.
Tragically, it’s lost on our joke of a governor.