By Karen Cadbury
For some time, Mainers have been told that our state has the oldest population of any in the country. And, in fact, there has been a decline in the ability of businesses and public institutions to find workers to fill many of the critical positions needed to maintain a vigorous economy, our educational institutions, and social and medical services.
At the same time, immigration policies in the United States, inherited from past administrations, are restrictive, inconsistent, and unwelcoming, even for individuals with specialized skills, education, and talents.
Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, recently hosted “Growing Maine: Bipartisan Immigration Solutions 2021.” The intent of the online conference was to bring leaders together from sectors in the state that are most affected by the declining workforce to discuss the problems generated by the lack of workers. Representatives from Maine’s congressional delegation also attended, and all voiced a desire to gain bipartisan support for significant pieces of current immigration legislation.
The federal legislation would allow asylum seekers and immigrants to work in the U.S. so they could help alleviate current employment shortfalls. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed immigration legislation but the Senate has not yet voted on these acts, and is not currently slated to do so. Passage in the U.S. Senate will require 60 votes. This means “yes” votes will be needed from every single Democratic senator, the two Independent senators (Angus King and Bernie Sanders) who caucus with the Democrats, and 10 Republicans.
Speakers drawn from Maine’s public and private sectors, representing large and small institutions, all agreed that the employment crisis is harming the state. Lori Dwyer, president and CEO of Penobscot Community Health Care (PCHC) said, “We serve 65,000 people in three counties,” and pointed out that 75% of PCHC’s physicians have reached retirement age. “Right now, we have 80 positions open and [each position has] been taking between seven and 11 months to fill. We’ve had to quadruple our [financial] investment to recruit staff.”
Brian Langley, chef and owner of the Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth, said his small private business does not have enough staff to run at 100%. “Already in June, we are getting tired,” he said, adding that there were two-hour-plus waits at restaurants throughout the area. “I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.”
Eric Venturini, the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said, “Blueberries are iconic to Maine, but it is increasingly difficult to find workers and housing for the farm workers. Labor is the biggest challenge in agriculture, and we need housing, which would help farmers and farm workers alike.”
All of the speakers agreed that part of the solution to Maine’s employment crisis lies in the immigrant population, some of whom are already sustaining important industries in Maine.
According to Ben Conniff, chief innovation officer and co-founder of Luke’s Lobster in Portland, 70% of the lobster caught in Maine is processed primarily by people from immigrant communities.
“Immigrant workers are so incredibly critical; we would not survive without them,” he said. “[Finding] labor is the number one problem stifling the economy. The biggest thing we can do [to help] Maine’s economy is to ask our legislative reps to support these three pieces of legislation.”
Angela Okafor, who is a Bangor city councilor and an integral part of the Bangor community, said she endured a long wait after she immigrated from Nigeria before she was allowed to accept work in the U.S. Now she runs Okafor Law Practice, which specializes in immigration law, and is the owner of Tropical Tastes and Styles International Market in Bangor.
Commissioner Heather Johnson of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development said Maine needs 75,000 more workers and agreed that a solution to the gap lies in the immigrant population. “We can’t achieve our goals without the participation of immigrants,” she said.
“Maine needs immigrants, and therefore immigration reform. We are finally recognizing the vital contribution immigrants are making across Maine,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition.
Kerem Durdag, president and CEO of the fiber optic internet business GWI, and a first-generation immigrant himself, said he’s been part of the fabric of Maine’s economy for 20 years. He wants immigrants to Maine to be “welcomed, root, and grow. I urge our representatives to pass these three acts; it will create prosperity for all.”
Please contact your legislative representatives if you would like to share your thoughts about the connection between the health of Maine’s economy and immigration reform.