By Stephanie Harp

Beth Stickney

The last few months have been busy ones for Maine Business Immigration Coalition’s Executive Director Beth Stickney. MeBIC, as the organization is known, has gathered nearly 100 signatories among businesses, institutions of higher education, nonprofits, and professional associations to support the Maine Compact on Immigration. A bipartisan initiative, the Compact promotes “immigration policies that will strengthen our economy and communities, attract and retain global talent, and bring new entrepreneurs, businesses and workers to our nation and state,” the document states.

“We wanted to do a Maine Compact on Immigration because there’s never actually been a broad-based statement by Maine’s business and higher education community about the importance of immigration to Maine,” Stickney said. Several other states have created these compacts, including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Utah. “The impetus behind these compacts is that, at the national level, there is broader and broader awareness that we need, just from an economic standpoint – even if you take the human aspects of immigration out of the equation, which we shouldn’t do – there’s still a huge case to be made for improving our immigration systems and allowing more immigrants to come.” Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Association, and tourism associations already “get it,” Stickney said. “And they’re certainly doing the lobbying that they would normally do.” The Maine Compact on Immigration lets Maine’s policy makers know that it’s not just national groups, but also businesses, trade associations, and higher education institutions right here in Maine that understand the urgent need for federal immigration reform and, on the state level, for policies to help Maine attract immigrants and be a place where immigrants can succeed and will want to stay.

MeBIC was founded in 2017 in the recognition that immigrants are “hugely important to our state, including to our economy,” she said. “With some exceptions, until relatively recently, the business community seemed to be generally absent from discussions going on at the state level about policies and laws that would either help or hinder Maine in becoming a destination of choice for immigrants who come to the U.S., and also about federal immigration policy.” Some businesses and organizations already monitor federal immigration laws and how they impact Maine’s ability to attract international talent. Hospitality Maine, for example, the nonprofit trade group representing lodging, restaurant, and hospitality industries, advocates for various visa programs that allow international workers to boost Maine’s seasonal labor force. But both MeBIC and now the Compact provide a coordinated – and therefore more powerful – approach. “A lot of Maine businesses are just not aware of the impact of federal laws on our immigrant streams,” said Stickney. “MeBIC was formed, in part, to help educate those in the business community who might not be aware of the impact of federal law on immigrants coming into our country, and to help those businesses that want to engage in advocacy for better laws and policy on the federal level and state level be able to do so.”

When MeBIC publicly launched the Compact in late February, 82 organizations had signed, a number that has grown since then. The industries they represent are broad ranging, such as Associated General Contractors of Maine, Bangor Savings Bank, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Coastal Enterprises Inc., JAX, Maine College of Art, the Maine Dairy Farmers Association, Northern Light Health, Orono Brewing, Portland Yacht Services, University of New England, WEX, a number of local chambers of commerce, as well as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re really hoping that the Maine Compact on Immigration will lead to more coordinated and frequent interactions with our federal delegation about particular legislative proposals,” said Stickney. A group of Compact signatories recently met with Senator Susan Collins to talk about leading on federal immigration reform. On March 18, the House of Representatives had given bipartisan approval to two bills that are MeBIC priorities and that provide a path to permanent residency and citizenship to over four million immigrants. The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 would legalize eligible “Dreamers” and holders of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, and individuals with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Both of Maine’s representatives voted in favor of this bill. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 would give legal status to over one million eligible, undocumented farmworkers and would improve the H-2A agricultural worker visa process, increase worker protections for these visa holders, and create a new, year-round visas for dairy workers. First District Representative Chellie Pingree voted in favor; Second District Representative Jared Golden was the only Democrat to vote against it. The bills now head to the Senate, where they also have bipartisan support, but where Sen. Collins’ leadership will be critical.

MeBIC has sent the Compact to the four members of Maine’s federal delegation and plans to request meetings with the other three members. “The Compact wasn’t supposed to be issued in a vacuum,” Stickney said. “It is intended to be used to say, ‘Here’s what we want. Here’s the framework.’ ” At the state level, MeBIC believes the Compact will be helpful with bills in the State House. “I’ve had conversations with many of the signatories to find out which bills might be of interest to them. It’s going to help with organizing testimony around certain bills. And it can be used to point to the broad business support for policies that will help Maine be a welcoming state.” At this point, MeBIC has not yet made plans to work with municipalities on the principles outlined in the Compact. “As a practical matter, I’m MeBIC’s only staff. Right now I’m laser focused on bills we want to get through in the State Legislature,” she said.

On the federal level, she called this “the year” to try to pass federal reform. Other federal priorities for MeBIC include improving immediate family immigration policies; cumbersome, limiting, and outdated employment-based immigration laws; and improving the asylum system and ability for asylum seekers to work while their cases are in process. “The U.S. is an aging country. The baby boomer generation is increasingly hitting retirement age and leaving the workforce, and U.S. birth rates are at the lowest level since 1909, when the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] started tracking them,” she said. “We’re not the only aging country. All of Europe is in the same boat we’re in, as are Canada and Japan. Industrialized nations are facing a shrinkage of the labor pool. But other countries are changing their immigration laws to accommodate that.” Canada and Germany, for example, have liberalized their laws to make immigration and permanent residency easier. “Other countries are saying, ‘What can we do to make it easier for people to come here and stay?’ ”

In graduate schools in the fields commonly known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), Stickney said that the vast majority of students are international, from over 50% in some fields to over 80% in others, such as petroleum engineering. “But if you want to stay, there’s a lottery for only 85,000 H1B visas. So you may have an employer who wants to hire you on an H1B, but when they register for the lottery, it’s hit-or-miss, whether they’ll be one of the lucky employers who gets picked to file a petition. That’s no way for an employer to be able to get top talent.” In Canada, by contrast, a student getting a graduate degree in a STEM field at a Canadian university is guaranteed the ability to legally work after graduation and can receive residency in about two or two-and-a-half years, receive a green card, and be able to work. “If you’re an international student in biomedical engineering from Mumbai, where do you think you’d prefer to go?”

Why is immigration such a controversial issue in the U.S.? “I think the diversification of the country over the last 50-plus years has made immigration part of the unspoken – but increasingly being spoken about – conversation around race. I do feel like racism plays a big role, in the hostility and fear that some people have about immigrants,” Stickney said, noting that “I have little doubt that if all immigrants were coming from England or Sweden or other predominantly white, Western countries, we wouldn’t even be having a conversation about whether immigration is controversial.” But she adds that hostility towards immigrants is not new, playing out against each successive wave of immigrants since the 1870s. “There certainly seems to be a narrative that has existed and resurged, time after time, even among first-generation immigrants, that America is a pie that is of finite size. And a person comes in and they get a slice, and some fear that if anyone comes in after them, their slice might shrink.”

But given the country’s aging demographics, that isn’t true. “Even if we started turning our birth rates around, it’s going to be another 20 years before the babies born today are going to be entering the workforce in any substantial numbers,” she said. “We need people and, to the extent that a strong economy is capable of lifting all boats, then we need a strong economy.” A shrinking economy harms everyone, especially those without substantial resources, she said, while a growing economy – if with good, federal-level policies – can benefit those on the lower and middle rungs of the socio-economic ladder, and others.

“So we need to think of immigration as part of our nation’s tradition for the last 400-plus years, and as something that has brought so much innovation and creative energy to science, to research, to development, to political thought, to the arts. And there are so many objective indicators of immigrant contributions to the U.S.,” Stickney said. This includes a high number of patents held here in the U.S. compared to other countries, and the number of U.S. Nobel Prize winners who are immigrants or children of immigrants. “There’s just so much energy from immigrants who come to this country, that helps this country and, when it comes to scientific advances, can help the world,” she said