Members of Maine’s Somali-American community denounced comments Donald Trump made during a Portland campaign stop suggesting that their presence in the state has led to an increase in crime, a claim refuted by police.
“We condemn in the strongest terms such name-calling, scapegoating and lies,” Deqa Dhalac, an executive with the Somali Community Center of Maine, said during a rally in front of Portland City Hall Friday.
A day earlier, Trump had singled out Somalis during a campaign event in Merrill Auditorium attended by 1,600 people in which a major theme of his speech was the perceived threats of immigration.
“We have seen many, many crimes getting worse all the time and as Maine knows, a major destination for Somali refugees,” Trump said while sharing a stage with dozens of state lawmakers, Maine Republican Party officials and Gov. Paul LePage, a fervent Trump supporter.
There are about 12,500 immigrants from seven east African countries, including Somalia, now living in Maine, according to the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. Maine’s largest Somali populations are in Portland and Lewiston, LePage’s hometown.
On Friday, Lewiston’s acting police chief, Brian O’Malley, said there was no correlation between Somali immigration and increased crime, and if anything, the opposite is true.
When asked if crime was up because of Somali immigrants, O’Malley said. “Not in Lewiston. Our crime rate has gone down. We have not seen any increase in crime due to the Somali immigrants.”
He said that since Somali immigrants began arriving in Lewiston in the 1990s, the city’s crime rate has steadily decreased. Meanwhile, overall crime rates are down across the state and across the nation, O’Malley said.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said property and violent crime rates were down in his city as well. Sauschuck said property crime was down 14 and violent crime was down 24 percent compared to 2015.
“The Portland Police Department has a great relationship with our Somali community,” the chief said. “I look at comments like that as unfounded here in the city of Portland.”
He said no one from the Trump campaign called his department seeking information about crime in the city.
Portlanders packed the steps of City Hall Friday afternoon to show their support for the state’s immigrants during the rally organized by the Somali Community Center of Maine and the Lewiston-Auburn-based New Mainers Alliance.
“When somebody who is running for president of the United States stands on values of bigotry and xenophobia; when somebody who is running for the president of the United States doesn’t even know the first line of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which says, ‘Freedom of religion will not be abridged;’ when somebody of who is running for president of the United States doesn’t understand that, we have to stand up,” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said. “We cherish the Somali community here. You are welcomed here, you are cherished here. But more than you are welcomed and cherished here, we need you here.”
Mahmoud Hassan, president of the Somali Community Association of Maine, said Trump’s rhetoric “was very destructive. It is damaging to the psyche of our youth to hear a major party presidential nominee insult our culture and religion, especially while standing next to the governor of our state.”
Trump’s campaign manager in Maine, Christie-Lee McNally affirmed Trump’s comments Friday.
“Mr. Trump’s is a common sense call to temporarily pause in immigration from countries with known terror networks, until we are able to fully assess who is coming into this country,” McNally said in a statement. “Under a Trump-Pence administration, we will enforce our immigration laws and empower our intelligence officials to identify and apprehend threats to Americans. We will make America safe again.”
The statement did not acknowledge that crime rates are down in Maine and the United States, or that there have been no acts of terrorism committed by Somali immigrants in Maine. McNally did say that the policies of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival, had cost American lives as illegal immigrants have been convicted of murdering American citizens.
State Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, called Trump’s statements “cruel insinuations.”
Libby touted Lewiston’s low crime rate as well.
“Many immigrants fled unimaginable persecution and violence to seek peace and prosperity in America,” Libby said. “They have started businesses, participated in our schools and civic institutions, and contributed to our economy and our increasingly vibrant downtown. They deserve better than they received from Donald Trump.”
Libby also criticized the Maine Republicans who stood with Trump on Thursday, including LePage.
“Anyone who claims to represent Maine people has an obligation to stand up to Donald Trump or anyone else who comes to our state and disparages our citizens,” Libby said. “Whether your family traces its roots to Ireland, Somalia, Quebec or anywhere else, Mainers stick together, and they expect their political leaders to stick with them, too.”
Dhalac, the executive with the Somali Community Center, agreed.
“It is very unfortunate that the governor of Maine, who is the highest authority in our state, stood by while his guest and political ally made such unfounded accusations against the constituency he is supposed to represent,” she said. “Mainers and the American people deserve better from our representatives in government.”
A message to LePage’s office seeking comment were not returned Friday.
Deering High School Vice Principal Abdullahi Ahmed was encouraged by the outpouring of support from his friends and neighbors in Portland.
“You coming out here today is a manifestation and a statement to Donald Trump and his supporters that there is no room for hate in Maine,” Ahmed said. “Your standing here is sending a statement that hate on one of us or a part of the community is hate on all of us. I say to Donald Trump, if you hate on immigrants, we are all immigrants. Your hate on Mexicans, your hate on Somalis, will also be hate on all of us.”
Ahmed said Trump was right that many immigrate to the U.S. do come from places of danger.
“The real meaning of the term refugee is the people that are coming from the troubled places, it’s a symbol of a nation that people are coming for safety and opportunity and it’s the same reason that a lot of Europeans came to this land. We are saying to Donald Trump coming from a troubled nation or a troubled place does not mean we are criminals. We are not.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has repeatedly criticized Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, but has neither endorsed nor disavowed his campaign. She was again critical of her party’s nominee Friday.
“As we debate proposed reforms to our country’s immigration system, Mr. Trump’s statements disparaging immigrants who have come to this country legally are particularly unhelpful,” Collins said in a statement. “Over Maine’s nearly 200-year history, our state has benefited greatly from immigrants from all over the world. In addition to our well-known Franco heritage, Maine has benefited from people from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and, increasingly, Africa, including our friends from Somalia.”
Michael Byerly, re-election campaign spokesman for Rep. Bruce Poliquin, 2nd District, did not address Trump’s comments directly. Lewiston is in the 2nd Congressional District.
“The congressman is not participating in day-to-day media carnival surrounding the presidential campaign. His focus is on doing his job for the people of the 2nd Congressional District,” Byerly said in a statement. “He has established his own positions on the issues as he fights for the citizens of Maine.”
Dan Gleick, a spokesman for Poliquin’s Democratic rival, Emily Cain, noted that Poliquin continues to avoid taking a stance on Trump’s candidacy.
“Congressman Poliquin’s constant, calculated evasion is an embarrassment,” Gleick said. “It is his job to stand up for the people he represents. Instead, he has shamefully tolerated personal attacks against veterans, a mother of an American solider killed in action, and now an entire group of his own constituents who pay taxes, start businesses, and give back to their communities. Congressman Poliquin isn’t doing his job and we should elect someone who will.”
Staff Writers Eric Russell and Noel Gallagher contributed to this report.