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How a community changed by refugees came to embrace Trump

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AP Photo/David Goldman

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — Richard Rodrigue stood in the back of a banquet hall, watching his blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter mingle among her high school classmates. These teenagers speak dozens of languages, and hail from a dozen African nations.

They fled brutal civil war, famine, oppressive regimes to find themselves here, at an ordinary high school pre-prom fete in this once-dying New England mill town, revived by an influx of some 7,500 immigrants over the last 16 years. Rodrigue smiled and waved at his daughter, proud she is a part of it: “It will help her in life,” he said. “The world is not all white.”

Rodrigue believes the refugees resuscitated his town – plugging the population drain that had threatened to cripple it, opening shops and restaurants in boarded-up storefronts. But he also agrees with Donald Trump that there should be no more of them, at least not now. America is struggling, he says, and needs to take care of its own before it takes care of anyone else.

His working-class community, built along the banks of the Androscoggin River in the whitest state in America, is a place that some point to as proof that refugee integration can work. And yet for the first time in 30 years, voters in Androscoggin County chose a Republican for president, endorsing Trump’s nativist zeal against the very sort of immigrants who share their streets and their schools.

Rodrigue knows he was born on the winning end of the American dream. His grandfather fled poverty in Quebec and moved to Maine to toil his whole life in the textile mills. He never learned English, faced hate and discrimination. Two generations later, Rodrigue owns a successful security company, lives in a tidy house in a quiet neighborhood and makes plans to send his daughter to college.

Immigration worked for him. But it feels different today, as the county of 107,000 people tries to find its footing. The sprawling brick mills that line the river sit mostly shuttered. A quarter of children grow up poor. Taxpayers pick up the welfare tab. So Trump’s supporters here tie their embrace of his immigration clampdown to their economic anxieties, and their belief that the newcomers are taking more than they have earned.

“There’s got to be a point in time when you have to say, ‘Whoa, let’s get the working people back up. Let’s bring the money in. But they keep coming, keep coming,” Rodrigue said.

His community has been an experiment in immigration and all that comes with it – friendships, fear, triumphs, setbacks – and he knows that Trump’s presidency marks another chapter in that struggle for the American soul.

“I guess it just boils down to: What’s enough? Is that wrong? Am I wrong? Am I bad? That’s how I feel.”

No one invited the Somali refugees to Lewiston.

They fled bullets and warlords to eventually be chosen for resettlement in big American cities, where they were unnerved by the

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