What do Mainers, new and old, want from the Office of New Americans?
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts examining Maine’s proposed Office of New Americans.
Belinda Vemba left Angola three years ago out of fear for her family’s safety because of her husband’s work in politics. Her first few days in Maine were spent in a shelter before she, her husband and children moved into the Quality Inn in South Portland, where they lived for nine months.
She learned how to apply for housing, eventually settling her family in Westbrook, and has volunteered with community organizations, including Maine Equal Justice and the Peer Workforce Navigator Project. She now works at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.
“The amount of support and services that we got when I first arrived here, I think that’s what pushed me to get myself even more into volunteering and helping people like myself,” Vemba said.
There are a number of existing organizations dedicated to supporting the state’s immigrants, some focused on particular issues and others on specific countries of origin. Government agencies and other entities, such as education systems, also offer services specific to New Mainers. As Maine plans for an Office of New Americans to help immigrants enter and remain in the state’s workforce, immigrant community groups are beginning to outline collective goals for the agency.
Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, which comprises more than 100 organizations across the state, will focus its next two member meetings on this very topic, said its executive director Mufalo Chitam.
“I am really, as an organization, wanting to be very, very meticulous in what the office gets to do,” Chitam said. “Even just one or two things that it does, and does well.”
While organizations develop their recommendations for the office, common concerns voiced among community leaders and immigrants include providing pathways to transfer and obtain professional and educational certifications, alleviating language and cultural barriers in the workplace, streamlining access to work permits, and filling leadership roles with people who have lived experience.
Overall, they hope that the new office will coordinate existing services, rather than duplicate efforts.
Beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach
Many immigrants come to Maine with degrees and previous job experience but are unable to transfer those qualifications due to a number of logistical hurdles.
Union jobs, for example, often require people to provide transcripts or proof of certifications in order to get credit for previous experience, said Sam Boss, apprenticeship, workforce and equity director of the AFL-CIO of Maine. When it comes to existing certifications, many don’t transfer country-to-country, and for those that do, it can often be an expensive or difficult process.
“That’s really tough to get if you left Afghanistan in a hurry because your family was in jeopardy,” Boss said, as an example.
Boss runs a pre-apprenticeship training program, Union Construction Academy of Maine. While no previous construction experience is required to participate, he says many immigrants who do already have credentials and previous work experience from their home countries.
“I had a carpenter who was here from Togo who came through our pre-apprenticeship program just to get the certifications he needed to get out of dead-end non-union jobs,” Boss said. Almost immediately when Boss sent him out as an apprentice, the employer moved him up to a higher skilled job. He was not an apprentice-level worker, but he could not immediately pick-up work at the level he’d left off due to needed certifications.
Other Offices of New Americans in the U.S. have created pathways to transfer credentials.
For example, Colorado’s Office of New Americans is implementing an assistance program for international medical graduates, providing system-level coordination to an initiative first headed by community efforts. In Maine, the healthcare sector is particularly in need of workers — a crisis heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic — which is underscored by the expansion of nursing programs at community colleges and universities in recent years.
Sometimes credentials cannot be transferred, however. The Office of Global Michigan, formerly the Michigan Office for New Americans, was a lead partner in the development and dissemination of language accessible guides to help foreign-trained healthcare professionals find alternative jobs in their field. These guides are also available for general educational and licensing pathways for more than 40 other jobs.
Transferring skills and credentials can be further hindered by language barriers. Boss sees this with those in his pre-apprenticeship program. “There are so many people who have skills as welders, who have skills as electricians, who have really valuable skills that could contribute right away to Maine’s economy that can’t because they don’t have the language skills,” he said.
Workforce courses are available in Maine, including through its community college system, which offer training to acquire and upgrade technical skills, improve employability skills and meet educational requirements for job certifications.
Dan Belyea, chief workforce development officer for the Maine Community College System, said the New Mainer population is a key focus of his work at the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce, which launched in 2021 to focus on coordinating short-term workforce training.
“Let’s not make people relearn things they already know,” Belyea said of New Mainers. “Let’s reduce that time and get them the critical skills they need if there are gaps.”
Individual colleges have recently created positions specifically to support immigrants, including a workforce development coordinator for New Mainers at Northern Maine Community College, as part of larger effort by the Northern Maine Growth Initiative, and a New Mainer liaison hired just this month at the Harold Alfond Center.
When thinking about what a state Office of New Americans could add to this work, Belyea said, “I think it’s all about coordinating priorities and opportunities.”
Barriers are not alleviated once immigrants secure jobs, either.
Transportation is an issue. The pre-apprenticeship program has tried to provide stipends for transportation, however General Assistance requirements often vary between towns, putting some workers at risk of losing benefits if they receive additional supplements to their income. Boss said this has prevented him from providing transportation stipends in some cases and exemplifies the need for more state-level coordination of services.
Some of the challenges immigrants face in the workforce are less tangible.
Moon Nguany, the community wellness program coordinator at Maine Association for New Americans (MANA), witnessed her parents face racism and stigma when entering the workforce and otherwise integrating into society. Her family immigrated to the United States from South Sudan in 1995, when she was 5 years old.
Her father, who belongs to the Nuer Tribe, has the traditional scarification on his forehead that in his tribe’s tradition is used to mark the transition from boy to man. Many in the U.S. viewed the scars as trauma and directed him to counseling for it, Nguany said.
“No, that’s his culture, that’s his tradition,” Nguany said, “and before we came here, we were so proud of that.”
His real trauma came from being a child soldier, she said, which cannot be so readily seen. Nguany hopes the office will not just focus on ways to integrate immigrants into the workplace but ensure that workplaces are inclusive.
“Many immigrant communities are in such a desperate space that they’ll take any treatment that they’re given as long as there’s a consistency of income because their whole family depends on it,” she said.
Adapting workplace culture happens on a case-by-case basis. For example, Boss with AFL-CIO has worked with individual contractors to allow workers time to pray while on the job as their religions require.
“There is that ‘one size fits all’ tendency,” Boss said, but he hopes the new office goes against that grain.
Federal challenges remain
Maine’s Office of New Americans will be focused on the long-term workforce integration of immigrants and on state-level changes, but immigrants and community leaders alike said a major barrier immigrants face when trying to enter the workforce is a short-term need that falls under federal jurisdiction.
“There’re so many asylum seekers in this state who want to go into the workforce immediately and go support themselves and their families but have to wait for so long to get work authorization,” said Abdullahi Ali, chief executive officer of Gateway Community Services, a nonprofit that supports the wellbeing of immigrants in the Greater Portland and Lewiston areas.
Under federal law, immigrants have to wait about six months after they file an asylum application before they can apply for an Employment Authorization Document, also known as a work permit, despite recent efforts by Maine lawmakers to shorten that wait time.
Sometimes immigrants can get a head start on preparing to enter the workforce.
The pre-apprenticeship program through AFL-CIO has worked with some immigrants ahead of receiving their workforce permits to ensure they have the certifications needed. However, Boss cautioned that starting the program too early is also a risk, as employers do not want months to pass before people can put their training to work.
Guiding from lived experience
The types of services Mainers would like the Office of New Americans to provide are as diverse as the stories of New Mainers themselves, who emigrate from dozens of countries and bring a variety of past work experience with them.
Finding commonality is key, in Vemba’s experience.
She has seen how guidance from her own lived experience has helped other immigrants she works with, whether that be people being better able to express themselves in their native language or feeling more comfortable voicing concerns because they know she has also had to apply for certificates like a work permit.
Vemba hopes the governor’s office will consider the benefits of leaders with lived-experience when eventually staffing Maine’s Office of New Americans.
“It’s great that they’re starting this office,” Vemba said. “It would be great if they could involve people with lived experience to be part of the actual office.”
Others agree, although some caution that a title alone is not enough, including Ali with Gateway Community Services.
“We have seen either people of color or immigrants who are put in places of power, or given some sort of title, but with no resources and no support from the rest of the system, and in many cases kind of set up for failure.”
Ali does not want that to be the case for Maine, and is hopeful it won’t be, but “we don’t want this to be just a name,” he said of the office.
“We want more than that, so what matters most is what the office will accomplish.”