2017-02-16 / Front Page

'A city of immigrants'

Biddeford school, city officials call for acceptance
By ALAN BENNETT
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — School and city officials have a message for Biddeford residents: everyone is welcome here, especially children.

In a letter to the editor, “Diversity at heart of American values,” published in today's Journal Tribune, Assistant School Superintendent Chris Indorf and Mayor Alan Casavant called for residents to think of the city's children as political tensions rise over immigration concerns.

The letter was written in partial response to President Donald Trump’s executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries — which he labeled as “terror-prone” — from entering the United States for 90 days.

“Much has been written about the order’s intent and constitutionality,” the letter’s authors wrote. “Little has been written, however, about the ban’s manifest and latent consequences for our nation’s most valuable and vulnerable asset: our children.

“We fret over the ban’s impact on our our community in general, and our schoolchildren in particular,” they wrote.

Casavant said he and Indorf felt compelled to write the letter as an assurance to Biddeford's students and parents that people of all races and nationalities are welcome in the city's schools. 

"I’ve been concerned, and I think the School Department has been concerned, about the impacts of the public rhetoric on these kids," he said. "I thought it important to remind people that we listen to the needs of people and individuals, and not succumb to profiling and stereotyping which is fundamentally flawed and wrong."

Trump’s order, titled, “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” which was signed on Jan. 30, also suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.

That includes admissions for Syrian refugees, in addition to restricting the inflow of refugees from other countries into the U.S., to give time for what the president has called “extreme vetting” of immigrants.

The travel ban, which has been criticized by many as a “Muslim ban,” impacts the Muslim-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

In the wake of the president’s actions, Biddeford city and school officials are also reminding residents about the value of immigrants and their integral role in Biddeford’s history.

“Biddeford is — and always has been — a city of immigrants and refugees,” they said.

According to school and city officials, the first European settlers came to the area that would become Biddeford when it was an Abenaki fishing destination. Later, in the mid-18th century, thousands of French Canadians came to Biddeford to work in the city’s mills.

Biddeford’s French Canadian and Franco-Americans were subject to discrimination and harassment by the Ku Klux Klan, and mocked for their ethnic differences.

Casavant said, growing up in Biddeford, he knows all too well the stereotypes surrounding the Franco heritage — he referenced the stereotype of the "dumb Frenchman" — and doesn't want to see the same type of discrimination carried out against today's immigrants. 

"I don’t want that type of ignorance to perpetuate itself again just because people come from a different culture. I think we have to look at peoples and individuals on their own personal attributes," he said. 

Casavant said he doesn't want history to repeat itself, and school officials say they want Biddeford students of all ages to know they are welcome here regardless of from where they or their parents hail.

“We looked at some of the messages that were put out in other places, and one of the things we felt was important was that it not just be from the School Department, and really to recognize that the history of Biddeford really is a history of immigrants,” School Superintendent Jeremy Ray said Wednesday.

Ray said about 7 percent of the school district’s student population are considered “English language-learners,” indicating they are immigrants to the U.S. According to school officials, the 160 students come from nearly 20 countries, including three on the president’s list.

“That population has grown and I think we project that will continue to grow,” Ray said.

The city also estimates that seven in 10 of the city’s immigrant and refugee families are Muslim.

Ray said immigrants add “immense value” to the city’s schools as it contributes to a better understanding of global cultures.

“I think increasing the diversity in our schools is outstanding and good for our students to learn about each other and different cultures,” he said. “Having the increased foreign population move in has been really an added benefit for us here.”

Ray said the department’s letter wasn’t an attempt to divide readers along party lines, but rather a message of acceptance.

“We want to make sure our students and staff knew where we stood as leaders in our community, while at the same time trying not to make this a huge political statement because we want to be respectful of all opinions,” Ray said.

He added that everyone is welcome in Biddeford schools, especially those from away, and hopes to keep Biddeford the safe and respectful place it has grown to become.

“We feel that we’re an open and caring School Department, and we just want to make sure that everybody here feels safe and knows we appreciate having them as part of our student body.

“When kids come to us, we see them as a child who needs help, and we are hoping to work with that child and that family,” he continued. “There’s no difference in how we see them. We’re here to take care of them.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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