These remarks were prepared for presentation at the Portland City Council workshop meeting of July 23.

Our greatest poet, Walt Whitman, called America “A nation of nations.” He meant that, aside from Native Americans, no one here can claim roots that go back behind the curtain of recorded history. All the rest of us came here from somewhere else, and each new wave of immigration brings new nations into the American nation. But America has not always been comfortable with Walt Whitman’s description of who we are. And neither has our beautiful city.

A century ago, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, immigrants arrived in Portland by the thousands: Catholics from Ireland fleeing famine; Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing war and persecution; and Francos looking for a better life for their families. In response, tens of thousands of Portlanders marched in our streets. But they did not march to welcome the newcomers. They marched in white robes. They marched to instill fear. They had hatred in their hearts and violence on their minds. These new people from places they considered strange and alien terrified them. Terrified them so much that they even changed our city government to give themselves tighter control. This building and this city had to live with their legacy for the next 100 years.

Today we live in a very different, far more welcoming city. A city that does not say “send them back.” Today, thousands donate money to help support new immigrants as they await their opportunity to join our workforce. Today, thousands ask to volunteer, and hundreds demonstrate in the streets to say welcome.

Our government and social service agencies look for every opportunity to help. We feed and shelter people. We bring in doctors and lawyers to ensure good health and legal protection.

Our police stand watch to serve and protect our newest residents, as they would someone who has been here for 100 years. Our firefighters respond when some youngster accidentally pulls the fire alarm at the EXPO (as has happened a few times) to make sure the building is safe.

Our schools are teaching our new children, and volunteers are teaching our adults.

Our governor is embracing this moment as an opportunity for the entire state, and is sending much needed resources to help stabilize our newcomers.

Our hospitals care for the woman whose baby died in the womb sometime between crossing the border and arriving in Portland, just as they cared for the newborn who arrived last week, the first American of these new Mainers.

And, like immigrant groups of the past, those from the Congo, Angola and numerous African nations who arrived before the current wave, have provided interpreters, churches, trips to the hospital, familiar food, tours around town, meals in their homes, and celebrations of culture. And to those of us wanting to help but not knowing the language or culture or needs of our newest arrivals, you have shown us the way, demonstrating good practices, and easing communication.

You new Americans have been the invaluable bridge to these even newer Americans. And most important, you have helped our newcomers feel safe; reducing anxiety, comforting fears, and simply saying, as we all do, “welcome home.”

I have been in the Expo almost every day since these families arrived. I have met almost every adult and played with almost every child. I have seen all our volunteers and staff and police officers and firefighters and social service workers and nurses and immigrants helping at every turn. And today, I simply want to say to the people of this city and state: Thank you.

I have never been so proud to live in this remarkable city.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.