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 cannot 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 Donald Trump directly, Mitchell said that America was founded on immigration and flourished as new waves of people came from distant shores.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell pauses as he speaks Wednesday during an endowment fund dinner at his childhood church, St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church, in Waterville.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell pauses as he speaks Wednesday during an endowment fund dinner at his childhood church, St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church, in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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. “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 cannot go back to the past when immigration was unlimited.”

HUMBLE ROOTS

Mitchell was born in Waterville in 1933 and grew up at Head of Falls, a Lebanese and French-Canadian community that in 2017 will celebrate its 90th anniversary of it founding by Lebanese immigrants.

Speaking without notes Wednesday night, Mitchell recounted how he and others lived “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 Middle Easterners 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 American 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.”

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell takes a moment to have a photo with Ray and Lorraine Cyr at St. Joseph's Maronite Church in Waterville on Wednesday.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell takes a moment to have a photo with Ray and Lorraine Cyr at St. Joseph’s Maronite Church in Waterville on Wednesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Mitchell noted the irony of the only class of immigrants who were welcomed to the New World – Africans, arriving in chains, 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 was a textile worker who came by boat from Lebanon, is a graduate of Waterville High School, Bowdoin College and Georgetown University Law School.

STATESMANSHIP ACHIEVED

Mitchell served as Democratic Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. He was appointed by President Clinton as special envoy to Northern Ireland, a country embroiled in “The Troubles.” He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating a peace agreement.

Mitchell was U.S. special envoy to the Middle East under President Obama in 2011, and in 2006, he was asked by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig to investigate the reported abuse of steroids.

He is currently Penn State’s Athletic Integrity Monitor, according to Wikipedia.

As for the presidential race, Mitchell said he believes Hillary Clinton will win.