By Andy O’Brien 

Everywhere you look across Maine, there are ‘help wanted’ signs. We need workers, and New Americans, who want to support themselves and their families, can be one important part of that solution.

— Governor Janet Mills

Gov. Janet Mills has released her long-awaited plan to create an Office of New Americans (ONA) in state government, responsible for integrating New Mainers into communities and the economy statewide. At a January 19 press conference, immigrant advocates, business owners, and municipal and state leaders joined Mills in unveiling the plan at American Roots, a Westbrook-based unionized textile manufacturer with a predominantly immigrant workforce. 

Gov. Janet Mills (center) was joined by civic leaders at the announcement of the launch of the process aimed at establishing the Office of New Americans in Maine. (L-R) Anaam Jabbir, American Roots; Dory Waxman, Common Threads of Maine; Fatuma Hussein, Immigrant Resource Center of Maine; State Rep. Deqa Dhalac; State Sen. Rick Bennett; and Mufalo Chitam, Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition

Under the plan, the ONA would be charged with “welcoming and supporting immigrants to strengthen Maine’s workforce, enhance the vibrancy of Maine’s communities and build a strong and inclusive economy.” As the plan notes, Maine has one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the nation, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data, but the economy is growing faster than the state’s workforce. 

Currently, Maine is facing a serious shortage of workers in several critical sectors including healthcare, education, and construction. There are about two open jobs for each unemployed person in Maine due to record job growth during the last four months ending in November, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information. With deaths continuing to exceed births in Maine, the Mills administration has set a goal to add 75,000 workers to the state’s workforce in the next six years. The ONA plan identifies New Mainers as an important part of its workforce development strategy, especially in filling vacant positions in healthcare, construction, and hospitality. 

“Everywhere you look across Maine, there are ‘help wanted’ signs. We need workers, and New Americans, who want to support themselves and their families, can be one important part of that solution,” said Mills. “My administration will do what we can to ensure that every person can contribute to our economy and successfully enter and stay in our workforce. As we strengthen our economy by attracting talented people to work in Maine, may this office help us fully harness the contributions of New Americans who have chosen to make our state their home.” 

(L-R) Claude Rwaganje, Prosperity Maine; State Rep. Deqa Dhalac; Georges Budagu Makoko, Amjambo Africa; Chanbopha Himm; Fatuma Hussein, Immigrant Resource Center of Maine; Mufalo Chitam, Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition.
Governor Mills with Amjambo’s Publisher Georges Budagu Makoko

Building career pathways, supporting New Mainer entrepreneurship 

Broadly, the ONA would focus on workforce training, licensing, language acquisition, and legal support for immigrants. In addition to creating four staff positions at the ONA, the plan would establish a 19-member advisory council to advise the new office on issues related to the long-term economic and civic integration of immigrants in Maine. The plan includes proposals to expand and strengthen English language learning opportunities to help New Mainers become successful in a variety of occupations. It also aims to help people build professional career pathways, especially for those who arrive here with advanced degrees and professional experience. 

The ONA’s mission would include support of immigrant entrepreneurship, and improved coordination of work across state agencies, schools, community-based organizations, municipalities, and other entities. In addition, the plan calls for better data collection relating to Maine’s immigrant populations, to better understand their needs and help people be successful. The ONA would monitor, engage with, and inform federal policies impacting immigrant workers, such as work authorization policies for asylum seekers. 

Last year, Mills signed legislation (LD 1050, “Resolve, Directing the Department of Labor to Request a Federal Waiver to Allow Presumptive Work Eligibility for Asylum Seekers”) that directs the Maine Department of Labor to request a waiver from the federal government to permit asylum seekers to work in Maine while they wait for a decision on their asylum cases. The department requested the waiver in October. Mills, Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Angus King, and Rep. Chellie Pingree are backing legislation to shorten the waiting period before asylum seekers are allowed to seek work authorizations. 

Rep. Deqa Dhalac (D-Dist. 120), who fled violence in Somalia 30 years ago, has introduced bipartisan legislation on behalf of the governor to create the Office of New Americans. 

“By establishing this office, we are unlocking more economic potential for the entire state,” said Dhalac. “Organizing these resources in one place will ensure that new immigrants to Maine have the support they need to become engaged and self-sufficient members of our communities, ultimately bolstering economic growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship.” 

Although Republicans generally support policies to restrict immigration and the ability to declare asylum in the United States, Republican State Sen. Rick Bennett (Dist. 18, Oxford), a cosponsor of the legislation, said that establishing the ONA isn’t about “whether you support the country’s current border policy or not.”  

By establishing this office, we are unlocking more economic potential for the entire state.

— Deqa Dhalac

He said, “Rather it is about helping our communities, neighborhoods, and schools handle the unprecedented numbers of new immigrants making Maine their home. Our towns are struggling to deal with this change and cannot handle this influx alone. Ignoring the issue does not make it go away. The office will help us understand who these new Mainers are so we can integrate and assimilate them into our communities, strengthen English language learning, and build pathways to much needed employment.” 

Others speaking in support of the governor’s plan included House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Dist. 118), Mufalo Chitam of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Claude Rwaganje of Prosperity Maine, Fatuma Hussein of the Immigrant Resource Center, and Portland Mayor Mark Dion, as well as representatives from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Maine Tourism Association, Northern Light Mercy Hospital, Associated General Contractors of Maine, Maine Community College System, Catholic Charities Maine, and Mano en Mano. 

In August 2023, Mills issued an executive order directing the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and Future (GOPIF) to deliver the plan to establish the ONA by forming a stakeholder group including representatives of Maine’s immigrant communities, employers, business groups, community-based organizations, municipalities, school districts, higher education institutions, healthcare and service providers, and state agencies. The GOPIF reportedly conducted more than 100 outreach meetings and received input from more than 800 people from all 16 counties in the state. 

Eighteen other states have similar offices that are part of the Office of New Americans State Network, which are coordinated by the World Education Services and the American Immigration Council. 

Rep. Deqa Dhalac (D-Dist. 120), who introduced the bipartisan legislation, spoke at the January 19 press conference about the plan to establish an Office of New Americans within Maine State Government.  

Deqa Dhalac: The work that has led to the creation of the plan for the Office of New Americans has been incredibly thoughtful, inclusive, and far reaching. I’m proud to stand alongside my colleagues to mark this occasion, which I believe will usher in a new era or opportunity for all Mainers. This office represents a significant step toward recognizing and supporting the valuable contributions that immigrants have made to our great state. Throughout history, we have been enriched by the presence of immigrants. In fact, in 2022 alone, immigrant-owned businesses generated an impressive $48 million to [add to] our revenue. This demonstrates the immense economic impact that immigrants have had on our local community and our economy. Time and time again, we have witnessed the positive outcomes that come with immigration. When immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise the GDP. As our governor just mentioned, their income rises, but so does that of people who are born in the United States. It is because of people migrating to our state that our workforce is largely able to stay afloat.  

The Office of New Americans will provide the tools, resources, and the guidance needed for New Mainers to thrive and succeed. It will serve as a hub of support connecting immigrants with vital services and opportunities for growth. This office represents a commitment to inclusivity, to diversity, and to the belief that every individual, regardless of their background, deserves a chance to pursue their dreams and make a positive impact on our society.  

Amjambo Africa’s Dhananji Rathnayake attended the January 19 press conference and interviewed Apphia Kamanda Mpay, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years. She is Co-Executive Director of Common Threads of Maine and the lead sewing teacher. Rathnayake is originally from Sri Lanka. 

Apphia Kamanda Mpay

Dhananji Rathnayake:  Thank you for speaking with me. Could you tell me a little about  yourself? 

Apphia Kamanda Mpay: When I first arrived, as a fashion designer with a degree in fashion design, I began by taking English classes at Adult Education. Later, I was introduced to a training program at Common Threads of Maine, and became one of the first students in 2015, when the program started. We eventually established American Roots, and I became one of the initial employees. I currently serve as the Co-Executive Director of Common Threads of Maine and the lead sewing teacher. Our approach involves training individuals and helping them secure employment afterward. 

DR: What are your thoughts on the establishment of this new office here? Do you believe this office will be beneficial for the community? Specifically, how do you think this new office will impact immigrants and the local community? 

AKM: I especially like the fact that English is included because we have a problem with Adult Education sometimes; the waiting list is getting long. I think that Adult Education should expand, maybe create another office to serve more people, because English is really, really an issue. Even us, when we have students, there are places that we cannot send them because English is a barrier for them. We want our students to be able to go to work, understand the assignments, and provide what [is requested]. … They have the skills, but if you don’t have the language, how can you understand the assignment? How can you understand what they want you to do?  

DR: In the U.S., many people face prolonged waits to access jobs and opportunities, encountering barriers not just in English but also in health and housing. Dealing with the General Assistance office and the Department of Health and Human Services can be a struggle. … How do you believe this new office can bring positive change, and what steps should they take to effectively reach and impact people? 

AKM: Ensuring that immigrants don’t wait too long for their work authorization is crucial. Currently, it can take up to a year, which adds stress to those relying on General Assistance. If the process could be shortened to maybe three months, it would relieve the burden on General Assistance and improve service. Housing is also a challenge; some people stay in hotels for three years without finding an apartment.  

DR: What is your opinion, advice, and encouragement for future immigrants coming to America? How would you guide and motivate those starting their journey in a new country? 

AKM: Integration is important … like those who are taking our classes, we always tell them it’s good, the step that you are taking is good, because it’s integration. When you go to a country, you don’t just have to stay the way you are, you have to learn to dance, eat, behaviors like [people from the host country]. So I would encourage immigrants to … learn the language so you can be able to access multiple things. Even at work, they can give you more responsibility if you know the language, and take training [so] that you can find a job. … So all of these are ways that immigrants can step out and make their life easier and more affordable. It’s really important. 

And it’s not just about setting up this government office; there should also be a system to oversee how it works. If people don’t see the expected results, they should have the chance to appeal, and everyone should have equal rights to get benefits from the office.