Maine aims to boost workforce with Office of New Americans, but questions remain about urgent needs
Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts examining Maine’s proposed Office of New Americans.
Bright Musuamba started helping people in her community apply for unemployment benefits when they lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Musuamba, who immigrated to Maine about seven years ago, was known for her work helping other immigrants and speaks four languages, so people naturally flocked to her for help.
Except Musuamba knew nothing about unemployment. She’d never claimed benefits herself or helped anyone else do so. She was, as she put it, “flying by the seat of my pants.”
That introduction as an ad hoc navigator of unemployment benefits led to her current work with the Peer Workforce Navigator Project, which she helped establish through legislation passed last year.
Now, Musuamba and others employed by agencies across the state work full time as navigators — or, as Musuamba explained, often more than full time given the on-call nature of the work. A handful of workers specifically assist immigrants, including Musuamba who is based out of Prosperity Maine, a nonprofit that provides economic empowerment education to immigrants.
Musuamba, who now lives in Lewiston, is grateful to be able to introduce other immigrants to available services, but she said she still sees a major gap in coordination and communication that her individual efforts or those of her program alone cannot fix.
A central hub for immigrant services is what a proposed state office could provide.
Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order in August charging the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF) to create a plan for a state Office for New Americans. It will be “dedicated to supporting the long-term economic and civic integration of immigrants in Maine,” according to the executive order. The announcement came after years of advocacy from immigrant rights organizations for this type of state-level coordination of services that Musuamba described.
While an Office of New Americans will be a first for Maine, it is not a new concept. Maine’s office will participate in the Office of New Americans State Network, which is convened by the American Immigration Council and World Education Services. The network began in 2015 as part of Pew Charitable Trusts, when only a handful of such offices existed nationwide. Today, the bipartisan network connects offices or senior policy positions dedicated to immigrant integration in 19 states, including Maine.
However, Maine’s focus on long-term workforce development for the office is puzzling to some community leaders and immigrants, particularly given ongoing challenges to meet immigrants’ more immediate needs, such as housing. Others see the focus as an entry point into building a state-wide system that can support immigrants in the workforce and eventually beyond, although the possibility for this expansion remains to be determined.
A burgeoning workforce
When South Portland resident Selma Tinta arrived in Maine from Angola a year ago she could not speak English. She had a degree in international relations and started her own business in Angola, a women’s clothing boutique, but had to start over when she arrived in Maine. She’s thinking of going back to college to get a degree in business administration and is currently taking college preparatory classes.
Tinta also serves as a peer workforce navigator, like Musuamba, helping others navigate government systems that she’s continuing to make sense of herself.
Over the past 20 years, Maine has seen an increase in both domestic and international immigration and the state’s 10-year economic strategy seeks to take advantage of that trend, with a goal of attracting 75,000 people to Maine’s talent pool by 2029. Like Tinta, many international arrivals come to Maine with degrees and previous job experience but are unable to transfer those qualifications due to a number of logistical hurdles.
The Office of New Americans is meant to streamline paths to employment. Other offices in the ONA State Network have done so by creating programming and providing direct services including connecting skilled immigrants with licensed careers in their field, upskilling, ensuring access to existing services and connecting programs across agencies.
These offices across the country vary greatly in when and how they were founded. They also range in focus, said Rich André, who is the director of state and local initiatives at the American Immigration Council.
New Jersey’s office, for example, is based in its state Department of Human Services and has a benefits focus, although its total work includes much more. In comparison, Colorado’s office is based in its state Department of Labor and Employment. Much like Maine, Colorado’s focus is on workforce development.
How Maine’s office will be funded and how much it will cost remain open questions. Community leaders have voiced concern about its sustainability.
“Will this be something that will only stay here as long as the governor is around?” questioned Abdullahi Ali, chief executive officer of Gateway Community Services.
Hesitation about long-term, economic focus
Community members can provide input on the structure, staffing and services that ought to be provided by the proposed Office of New Americans, but its focus is not up for debate.
Musuamba, Ali and others who work in immigrant services raised concerns about other pressing issues the state could focus on, such as housing.
Housing remains a top issue for immigrant communities across the state, said Anthony Ruiz, deputy director of strategic communications and public affairs for GOPIF.
“This initiative is not a housing initiative,” Ruiz said of the Office of New Americans planning. “Housing is being handled in a variety of different ways, on the community level, in partnership with our office, but this particular initiative is really a workforce and an integration initiative.”
When asked about the reasoning for the office to support the long-term economic and civic integration of immigrants in Maine, rather than meet short-term needs, economic or otherwise, the governor’s office directed Maine Morning Star to the press release about the executive order without providing further response.
In addition to housing, Ali raised other existing immediate needs, such as food and healthcare, that will presumably not be included in the purview of the office.
“I’m hoping the scope will be much more than that,” Ali said of the workforce focus. “If not, I think it will be leaving out very important needs out there in the community.”
Yvette Unezase, interim executive director of the Maine Association for New Americans (MANA), an immigrant-led organization focused on supporting immigrants’ mental health and addressing trauma, agrees with the need to help immigrants enter and remain in the workforce but she wants the new office to think about the people it aims to serve as more than workers or an economic condition to be met.
“I want them to think about that one person as a whole person,” Unezase said, “thinking about their trauma, about their struggles and anything in between.”
Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition (MIRC), sees the workforce focus not as a limitation but rather as an entry point.
“There is no right place to start from,” Chitam said.
I think that Maine has so much potential, and if we all come together, put our heads together, our hearts together, our minds together, Maine can flourish and be an even greater state than it already is.
The plan for Maine’s office must be delivered to the governor by Jan. 19, and will be created after community input from a series of public and private listening sessions this fall, the first of which occurred virtually on Sept. 6. State offices are typically created through legislation — often the state budget — so it can be expected that the legislature will consider a proposal during the 2024 session.
The planning will be led by Erica Carley Harris, who will focus on workforce policy, Greg Payne, who is the plan advisor, and Georges Budagu Makoko, who will focus on engaging the immigrant community and community-based organizations.
Ruiz said the planning focus is on “nuts and bolts” questions such as what the office’s structure could be.
“We’re not going to have instant policy solutions to intractable problems right off the bat,” he said.
Once established, the office could tap into resources beyond Maine. The ONA State Network has monthly calls for high-level discussions between all state Offices of New Americans, in addition to several working groups that focus on specific issues and one-off meetings as needed to address timely challenges, André said.
In addition to peer support, the ONA State Network offers training.
“I’d say workforce development and language access are two areas where there’s a lot of interest among the network, so we’ll do training on professional licensing, or how to create a statewide language access plan,” André said. “Those are ongoing and as needed.”
The American Immigration Council conducts state-specific research that offices can use to effectively implement programs, too.
For example, undocumented residents in New Jersey became eligible for licenses in 2021, and its Office of New Americans wanted to know the top languages spoken in regions across the state as it rolled out its new program. It shared that data with their Department of Motor Vehicle branches so they could tailor their informational campaigns to be offered in the top languages of each region, André said.
“We haven’t really had a foothold in that part of the Northeast yet,” André said, “but I think a lot of those states, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, have similar demographic challenges, as it were. So I think for me, it’s like a no-brainer, and it’s great to see some leadership from Maine that will hopefully inspire some of the neighboring states to also invest in this work.”
When explaining where she emigrated from, Musuamba said she’s essentially always been displaced. With roots in Congo and a childhood spent mainly in South Africa, she traveled throughout Africa before eventually reaching the U.S. Outside of roughly three months in Buffalo, New York, in 2016, she’s been in Maine ever since.
The governor’s executive order set a goal to establish Maine as “an attractive state for new arrivals.” Musuamba and others who have made Maine home see that vision.
“I think that Maine has so much potential,” Musuamba said, “and if we all come together, put our heads together, our hearts together, our minds together, Maine can flourish and be an even greater state than it already is.”