By Tim Garrity
At the town meetings in Mount Desert on May 2 and in Bar Harbor on June 6, citizens will decide if their towns will be declared sanctuary communities. The resolutions essentially say that everyone is welcome here and that all persons are entitled to equal protection under the laws no matter what they look like, what their religious beliefs, or where they come from.
Our community has wrestled with the challenge of immigration before, and our record on the subject is mixed. Nineteenth-century “Know-Nothings” suspected the allegiance of Catholics, who they assumed would be more loyal to the Pope than the American nation. They demanded tough restrictions on immigration.
In 1854, a nativist mob in Ellsworth rode Father John Bapst out of town on a rail.
In the early 20th century, prominent scientists and politicians, many of whom visited or spent whole summers on Mount Desert Island, based their anti-immigrant bias on a theory called “scientific racism.”
In 1924, a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Bar Harbor attracted 600 people and opened with a prayer from the pastor of the Bar Harbor Congregational Church.
At the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor, 200 people attended a Klan meeting, and a cross was burned on the front lawn of the Union Church.
The Klan declared itself to be in favor of “restricted immigration, militant Protestantism, better government, clean politics … law enforcement, and allegiance to the flag,” goals that do not seem unusual in today’s political climate.
The Klan soon disappeared from the island as a political force. The people of Mount Desert Island just didn’t believe the hate speech. Bar Harbor Times Editor Albion Sherman wrote, “Our abiding faith in the sound common sense of the majority of our citizens, regardless of race or creed, is our reason for having no fear of any serious disturbance here.”
By the 1960s, the Bar Harbor Congregational Church was hosting meetings of the MDI Civil Rights Committee.
At times, the town meeting has provided a platform for a community to declare its values to the nation and the world. In the first months of the Civil War, a special town meeting was called in Mount Desert “to see if the town will vote to raise … a sufficient sum of money to pay a bounty for volunteers.” The town approved $100 for each soldier, and within a few weeks, 21 young men marched off to save the Union.
In 1865, a town exhausted by four years of war voted to allow men to stay home. Mount Desert voters approved funding for draftees to purchase an exemption from military service. Emily Savage wrote, “They are going to call a meeting and raise 300 dollars apiece for them that has to go and I am glad of it as the most of them are very poor men.” Still, Savage worried that town officials would not fight hard enough to keep men out of the draft. She wrote, “Our select men haint had spunk enough to try to do anything.”
In the 20th century, the town meeting again provided a forum to debate national issues. In 1982, at the height of the Cold War, a warrant question favoring a nuclear freeze was rejected by Mount Desert. But Bar Harbor and 61 other Maine towns approved the measure. More recently, in 2003, the town of Bar Harbor voted by a margin of nearly four to one to oppose the war in Iraq.
The sanctuary community resolutions took root last year when a presidential candidate described Mexican immigrants as drug pushers, criminals and rapists; boasted that he would build a giant wall along the Mexican border; let several days pass before he disavowed an endorsement from the former grand wizard of the Ku Klu Klan; and demanded a ban on Muslim immigration.
That candidate, Donald Trump, is now president of the United States. In the first months of his administration, a cloud of fear has descended upon the immigrant community. Words that roused up prejudice in the past are now dredged up for the same purpose today.
Refugees are fleeing the United States for Canada, some wading through deep snow to make their escape. The court ruling that struck down the government’s travel ban held that some immigrants “will not enter state universities, some will not join those universities as faculty, some will be prevented from performing research, and some will not be permitted to return if they leave.”
Immigrants are going underground, declining to report crimes and disenrolling from programs that provide food and medical care to their children. Schools are counseling immigrant families to prepare “parental directives“ for the day a mother or father are scooped up in a raid and deported. The fear is palpable.
Locally, our tourist economy is threatened by the “Trump Slump,“ a decline in U.S. tourism from foreign visitors. Our institutions of science, medicine and education will suffer from a brain drain of the world’s scientists, doctors and intellectuals. Our restaurants, hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and contractors all depend on a supply of foreign workers. Maine, with the oldest population in the nation, needs an infusion of youth that immigrants can provide. Our graying community should hear the voice of one young advocate who said, “I want Mount Desert to thrive as a community. Announcing our inclusivity and openness will help us attract young, working people to the island.”
Mount Desert Island has both economic and moral reasons to create a welcoming environment.
If you are dismayed by the Trump administration’s agenda, if you feel that you can’t keep quiet anymore, come to your town meeting. For America to remain the hope of the oppressed, the “lamp beside the golden door,” we need to speak out. Beware the historian. Town meeting records last a long time. Whether the sanctuary community resolutions pass or fail, when the future looks back on this troubled time, I want my name recorded alongside those who stood up for the immigrant and pushed back against fear.
Tim Garrity is a professional historian and resident of Mount Desert.