The term “from away” and the discussion of it are often in reference to people from U.S. states other than Maine. However, a population not usually considered when speaking about people “from away” is Maine’s immigrant population. Immigrants make up 4% of the state’s population as of 2020 and make up an equal percentage of the labor force.
Last year, Mayor Deqa Dhalac of South Portland was elected as the first U.S. Somali born mayor in the United States. A member of the state’s immigrant population, Dhalac’s appointment came 20 years after the mayor of Lewiston wrote a letter to his city’s Somali refugee population calling them a “burden.” In this letter, he wrote that the “large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all,” because they would stress city resources.
Yet, these new Mainers are essential for the state’s economic survival.
Maine is the whitest and oldest state in the nation. Nearly every county in the state had more deaths than births between the year 2010 and 2015. This lack of diversity also correlates to lower birth rates. Non-white populations greatly contribute to population growth as in other states. These populations also increase the future workforce as nearly half of Lewiston and Portland’s population under five are not white. In 2012, the Maine Labor Department predicted that Maine would need more than 100,000 new people to fill jobs that will be left vacant by those who are retiring. That gap can be partially filled by immigrants.
Immigrants are more than twice as likely than native-born Americans to start a business, and the percentage of our foreign-born population with bachelor’s, graduate and professional degrees is higher than the state average. While some struggle with having their degree accepted once they arrive, over 25 percent of Maine’s graduates with STEM degrees are immigrants, a skilled group in high demand and short supply that will fill jobs left by retiring Mainers and help care for elderly Mainers.
As Maine’s population ages, there are too few workers for each Social Security and Medicare beneficiary. This is a problem for all of the United States. To cover these costs, federal general revenue funds have been taken from education, research and development. In addition, healthcare spending has increased as the population ages, further stressing Medicare.
An aging population results in a low birthing population. This leads to not enough young people being produced which creates a workforce shortage. As they fill essential jobs, the money documented as well as undocumented immigrants make is taxed and used for programs like Social Security and Medicare. Senator Susan Collins, and other Republican U.S. senators, voted against allowing undocumented migrants to receive Social Security benefits.
More than creating jobs and revenue, immigrants from French-speaking countries in Africa have created connections with Maine’s large Franco-Canadian population. Lewiston in particular is home to many French Canadians of which the older generations were formerly discouraged or punished for speaking French. With the influx of Franco-Africans, these elderly Mainers use their French heritage to connect those who came generations ago and new arrivals by reviving their French speaking abilities after decades.
Governor Janet Mills has rolled out plans to aid the economy that include welcoming workers from out of state, recognizing their importance. As Covid-19 exacerbates the labor shortages, looking to those “from away” is becoming increasingly vital. Immigrants add to Maine not just economically but culturally, moving the state away from its ultra-homogenous retirement home-esque reputation.