By Andy O’Brien

On January 30, Room 214 of the Burton M. Cross Building in the Augusta State Capitol Complex, was overflowing with members of immigrant advocacy groups, business organizations, educational institutions, and others waiting to testify in support of Gov. Janet Mills’s proposed legislation to create an Office of New Americans. LD 2167, “An Act to Develop Maine’s Economy and Strengthen Its Workforce by Establishing an Office of New Americans,” would create a new office in state government that would coordinate programs for immigrants to acquire English, receive workforce training, obtain professional licensing in their professions, secure support to help their businesses grow, and access legal assistance in order to help them better integrate into our communities and the Maine economy.

Deqa Dhalaq

By establishing a central hub of information and resources for New Mainers, I believe [the Office for New Americans] will usher in a new era of opportunity for all of Maine.

— Deqa Dhalac

“By establishing a central hub of information and resources for New Mainers, I believe [the Office for New Americans] will usher in a new era of opportunity for all of Maine,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Deqa Dhalac (D-Dist. 120, South Portland). “Throughout our state’s history, we have been enriched by the presence of immigrants. When immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of people born in the United States.”

About 52,000 immigrants and refugees live in Maine, making up 3.8% of the population, according to 2021 American Community Survey data compiled by the American Immigration Council, a group that coordinates state Offices of New Americans across the country. The council’s report finds that New Mainers are critical to meeting the state’s future workforce needs. According to the report, 69% of them are of working age (16-64), compared to 62% of their U.S.-born counterparts. New Mainers paid over $600 million in taxes, including nearly $200 million in state and local taxes, and held $1.5 billion in spending power that is re-injected into the Maine’s economy. Immigrant-owned businesses in Maine generated $48 million in annual revenue in 2022, according to state tax data. 

“As neighbors, business owners, taxpayers, and workers, immigrants are an integral part of Maine’s diverse and thriving communities and make extensive contributions that benefit all,” wrote Rich André, Director of State and Local Initiatives at the American Immigration Council, in testimony supporting the bill that would establish an Office for New Americans here in Maine. Eighteen other states have similar offices that are part of the Office of New Americans State Network, which the World Education Services coordinates along with the American Immigration Council.

In highlighting the urgency of passing LD 2167, Mills has pointed to federal data which finds Maine has one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the nation, but the economy is growing faster than the state’s workforce with about two open jobs for each unemployed person in the state. Maine’s 10-year Economic Development Strategy has identified a need to add 75,000 individuals to Maine’s workforce by 2030. Mills has stated that immigrants are “one important part of that solution” and that the Office of New Americans will give them tools to be successful.

Others speaking in support of the governor’s plan included House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and representatives from the University of Maine, labor unions, business groups, immigrant groups, the Maine Community College System, and many others. The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,300 businesses employing 75,000 Mainers, testified that while municipalities and nonprofits have been under pressure to accommodate the needs of thousands of New Mainers who have arrived in Maine during the past few years, there is an “unimaginable opportunity” to reverse Maine’s demographic declines and grow the economy by better coordinating services, housing placements, and workforce development for immigrant populations so they can achieve the economic independence they “desire and deserve.”

“We believe that LD 2167 accomplishes many of those goals,” said Quincy Hentzel, President and CEO of the Portland Chamber.

Republicans oppose Office of New Americans

The bill was opposed by several Republicans whose testimony seemed to mistakenly state that foreign nationals have no legal right to file for asylum once they reach the U.S. In fact, it is legal for foreign nationals to plead for asylum from the U.S. Rep. Michael Lemelin (R-Dist. 53, Chelsea) said the office should only help people like his foreign-born wife, who arrived legally in the United States. He added that “illegal immigration destroys our economy and our society.” However, when Dhalac asked if he knew how many New Mainers had visited a border immigration officer to lawfully declare asylum, he said he did not know.

In testimony opposing LD 2167, Rep. Katrina Smith (R-Dist. 62, Palermo) said that Maine “is placing people who arrived illegally in our state above Mainers currently undergoing severe economic difficulties.” When asked if she knew how many asylum seekers in Maine are here legally, Smith replied that “it depends if they came through a proper asylum process or if they were shipped on a bus from Texas and we don’t know who they are.” She claimed that many asylum seekers are “young men without families” and criminals. When Dhalac asked Smith if she had ever met any asylum seekers, she replied, “No. I live in Palermo.”

Republican Rep. Mike Soboleski (Dist 73, Philips), who is running for U.S. Congress in the Second Congressional District, claimed that Mills’ plan to attract 75,000 workers to the state is equivalent to giving them “welfare.” He said all of the content currently in the bill should be removed, and replaced with a resolve telling Maine’s congressional delegation to “close the Southern border” and “secure” Maine’s border with Canada.

“American resources should always be used for American citizens first,” he said. He added, without offering evidence, that asylum seekers in Maine “are not escaping death and persecution. They’re coming because they are economic migrants and they’re looking for a more economically sound life to have.”

However, not all Republicans opposed the bill. Rep. Amanda Collamore (R-Dist. 68, Pittsfield) testified in support of the bill, but told the committee she was “shaking” because her party was giving her “a lot of really bad feedback” for co-sponsoring the legislation. She clarified that the bill was not about bringing more immigrants to the state or addressing U.S. border policies, but rather to “get people already living in our state working, so they can live independently without additional taxpayer support.”