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Anti-immigrant rhetoric derailing actual policy solutions in Maine

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Anti-immigrant rhetoric derailing actual policy solutions in Maine

Feb 05, 2024 | 3:51 pm ET
By Lauren McCauley
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Anti-immigrant rhetoric derailing actual policy solutions in Maine
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An immigration activist participates in a rally near the U.S. Supreme Court as they demonstrate to highlight immigrant essential worker rights, on May 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

There is a lot of talk about immigration these days, over the Southern border specifically. 

Addressing the challenge of the nation’s current immigration system is a massive and complex undertaking, which I cannot say I have the answer to. Like many places, Maine’s population is growing, and among its newest residents are people fleeing crises and hardships from other countries.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection dashboard, the number of “encounters” — meaning the number of migrants apprehended or inadmissible under Title 8, or expelled under Title 42 (the covid-era border regulations instituted under former President Donald Trump) — at the northern border in Maine, as well as other ports of entry like airports, rose from 4,597 in 2021 to 9,749 in 2022 to 19,768 in 2023. 

As that number is expected to grow, the state’s immigrant organizations have long worked to successfully resettle migrants into their new communities.  

One proposal, which Maine Morning Star reporter Emma Davis has reported on extensively, is to establish an Office of New Americans. Under Gov. Janet Mills’ plan, it would help coordinate groups and agencies already providing immigrant services and collect more accurate and timely data on populations in Maine. The office also would coordinate resources to help immigrants legally apply for work and become employed as quickly as possible, such as through accelerated certification pathways. Many have degrees and work experience that are not recognized by our current labor system.  

This bill has the support of dozens of groups, from Preble Street Shelter to the Maine Community College System to the Maine State Chamber of Commerce — each of which see it as a thoughtful way to integrate new arrivals into our workforce, allow them to be independent and help our state thrive.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the state has 42 available workers for every 100 open jobs. In its most recent annual “State of Working Maine” report, the Maine Center for Economic Policy noted that the number of people in the state’s workforce has increased 6% in the past 20 years, compared to the national rate of 20% growth over that same period. 

The fact is that Maine needs workers who can help sustain our industries and economy as our population ages.

That hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from framing the proposed office as “ignoring the needs of Mainers,” as Rep. Katrina Smith (R-Palermo) put it in a call on her social media for others to submit testimony against the plan.

During the public hearing, which carried on for hours, officials frequently had to redirect people — Republican lawmakers as well as the general public — who didn’t directly address the content of the bill but rather wanted to rail against U.S. border policy.

Rep. Amanda Collamore, a Republican who supports the proposal, started her testimony saying she was “shaking” because she was “getting a lot of really bad feedback because of the party I belong to.”

Mills releases plan for Office of New Americans

Collamore said she supports the bill because it gives Maine “the ability to get people already in our state working so they can live independently without additional taxpayer support,” and pointed to successful models, such as in deep red North Dakota.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that with the presidential election ramping up, the GOP has once again decided that blaming immigrants — specifically those from the Global South — for all of our social and economic woes is their primary campaign strategy. 

In the Republican response to Mills’ State of the State address, during which she outlined the ways the state’s economy has grown under her watch, Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) said the governor was “gas lighting people into thinking that everything is fine.”

Under current leadership, Maine has rolled out the red carpet and turned into the northernmost all-inclusive resort for anyone and everyone,” Stewart said. “Free new housing, free health care, free food — you name it, we’re giving it away,” he said. “All courtesy of the good, hard-working folks of Maine.”

This strategy worked for Trump before and it seems that many down-ticket Republicans, in Maine and elsewhere, have gotten the memo. And efforts to work towards legitimate bipartisan solutions are being hijacked by those more invested in advancing a campaign talking point.

Even if you choose to ignore the basic humanity of the people crossing our borders, as well as the reasons behind their flight (global instability, climate change, etc.), it’s actually basic market economics: We have a demand for workers and there is a supply of people eager to work hard and make Maine their home. 

And right now, many committed people across the political spectrum are trying to connect those two needs in a way that could work for everyone — if not for the political games and racism that seem to want to blow it all up.