U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has stirred up controversy this year with comments about Muslims and Mexicans. On Thursday, it was the Somali community’s turn to be in Trump’s line of fire.
Speaking at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine, the Republican Party nominee said the United States needed to stop admitting refugees from Somalia. He said that the U.S. was opening its doors to people from unstable countries and that the practice could be "the great Trojan horse of all time."
Trump cast doubt on the vetting processes for asylum-seekers and asserted that terrorists infiltrate the refugee system.
“They’re all talking about it. Maine. Somali refugees. We admit hundreds of thousands in Maine and into other places in the United States,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of refugees and they’re coming from among the most dangerous territories and countries of anywhere in the world. A practice which has to be, it has to stop. It has to stop.”
FILE - Students walk home from school in Lewiston, Maine, Jan. 26, 2016. Since February 2000, more than 5,000 Africans have come to Lewiston, a city of 36,500.
Citing an article in The Washington Times, Trump said efforts to resettle Somali refugees in Minnesota had created “an enclave of immigrants with high unemployment” that strains that state’s resources and creates “a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terrorist groups.”
“It’s happening, it’s happening, you see it happening, you read about it,” Trump told the crowd.
Copies of Constitution
During his speech, protesters held up copies of the U.S. Constitution, a reference to a similar gesture made at the Democratic National Convention by Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq.
The candidate’s comments about Somali-Americans being targeted by terrorist groups were not without foundation. Dozens of Somali immigrants from the Minneapolis area have joined the Islamic State militant group in Syria and the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab.
Trump also mentioned the case of a Somali immigrant who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Oregon in 2010.
Still, leaders of Somali communities in Maine and Minnesota were not happy with Trump’s remarks.
Ahmed Shu’ayb, a Somali community leader in Portland, said, “The way we see this speech is it’s unfortunate that someone who wants to lead America would want to speak like that. It is deplorable.”
Shu'ayb said he worried that Trump's comments could provoke a backlash against Somali-Americans. "As Somalis, it creates a feeling that this could stir up tension and hatred by the communities we live in toward the Somalis,” he said.
'Nonsense' about state, constituents
Keith Ellison, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota and the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, tweeted a response to Trump.
"Hey, @realDonaldTrump. I want to talk to you about the nonsense you said about my state and my constituents," Ellison wrote. "Immigrant communities built this country. They make America great, no matter what demagogues like @realDonaldTrump say."
FILE - Somali-Americans in Minnesota participate in a car-wash fundraiser to help Somali drought victims in 2012.
High level of integration
Hashi Shafi, a community leader in Minneapolis, is head of the Somali Action Alliance, which provides development services to Minnesota's African community. He rejected Trump’s characterization of Somalis.
“Somalis have proven that they can integrate faster than communities who came here 30 years prior; their level of integration is high,” he said. “If you look at it from other angles, they are participating in the society [in ways] such as security — Somalis have joined the Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines and the police. More than 20 Somalis are members of the local police.”
To some extent, Shafi saw Thursday’s comments as an example of Trump being Trump.
“Donald Trump’s speech is not that different from the speeches he made during his campaign. Even yesterday, he was [attacking] leadership in his party,” he said. “We, Somalis and Muslims, were not expecting him to praise us. Somalis are among those Muslims and black community [members] that he bad-mouthed. We are not different.”