During my employment with the Bowdoin College Upward Bound program, I worked closely with several students from Sudan and Somalia who had relocated to Lewiston. The goal of the program is to help first generation college students, whether born in Maine or abroad, reach their goal of higher education. It became clear to me, and many others within the program, that these students are truly here for a better life. Since the 1990s, Portland has become home to a growing number of refugees from countries such as Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi.
Recently, Lewiston’s mayor Robert Macdonald, received criticism for expressing his view that the immigrants in his city needed to leave their cultures at the door and assimilate to a Western way of life.
Macdonald’s comments echo sentiment of the Fascist Front national of France and highlight cultural differences between immigrant populations and non-immigrants populations in a negative manner. Attending USM, many of us have had classes with students from all over the world. Whether they are here from England on exchange, a recent immigrant from central Africa or a lifelong resident, citizen or not, they are part of our community.
Comments similar to the mayor’s draw divisions in the sand: us versus them, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The USM community has changed for the better because of the new views, experiences and opinions brought by greater diversity. However, for many Americans, it is not simply enough that individuals wish to improve their quality of life and pursue a higher level of education when they come here. These people must also play the part of an American.
I mention Lewiston because our community is not simply Portland or Gorham. We are a three-campus university that serves nearly ten thousand students. Some students are American, some are not. But even at the school level, we have opened up opportunities for students to get involved in our government and organizations. It just seems sad that student government is the highest election for which many of our students can vote.
In 2009, Maine voted on whether or not to allow non-citizen residents to vote in municipal elections. The measure was overwhelmingly struck down in the legislature. In 2010, Portland had a unique chance to override the decision and legalize voting for non-citizen, legal residents at the local level, such as school board and city council. Although close, 52 percent of voters decided that those basic freedoms were too much.
While looking at Maine’s laws, I stumbled upon a fun fact. Citizens who are incarcerated, regardless of the severity of the crime, can vote. Yet my friend, born in Colombia but raised in Massachusetts since the age of two, cannot. Is she truly less worthy of the right to vote than a murderer who was just lucky enough to be born in Maine? Apparently so.
It wasn’t that long ago that only rich, white men could vote in elections. While we have come a long way as a country to ensure voting rights for citizens, we must expand them once again. Once a refugee is allowed to work, he begins to pay taxes. His tax money goes to paving the roads, building the schools and helping out the less fortunate. If our government has no qualms with taxing people, it should at least give them the right to check a box for Portland City Council.