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Welcoming Immigrants Can be the Key to Economic Rebirth

Communities in Maine and Massachusetts Learned About Welcomming Immigrants

Posted Jan 12, 2016

By Linda Silka

Bangor Daily News' Maine’s #TheEconomyProject asks us to think about how we can grow Maine’s economy in the face of Maine’s shrinking workforce. When Maine’s future is brought up, many worry about Maine’s declining birth rates, out-migration and lack of in-migration. How, people are asking, are we going to encourage more people to come to Maine?

Library of Congress
Source: Library of Congress

Some of Maine’s leaders suggest we consider what the state’s economy would gain if we were to invite others such as immigrants to make their homes here. James Tierney, former attorney general in Maine, as well as many other leaders, argue that steps of this sort could bolster our sagging economy.

Consider a few facts. Immigrants started 20 percent of all new U.S. businesses in 2011 and contributed more than $775 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy report, “Open for Business: How Immigrants are Driving Small Business Creation in the United States.” Immigrant-owned businesses now employ one out of every 10 American workers in privately owned companies.

And immigrant numbers are growing. Some places are leading the way in growth in their immigrant populations. These include some expected states (California and New York, for example) and some unexpected ones (Iowa and North Dakota).

A recent Pew Research Report indicates that from 1960 to 2005, immigrants and their descendants accounted for 51 percent of the increase in U.S. population, and from 2005 to 2050 immigrants are projected to contribute 82 percent of the total increase of U.S. population.

What can we learn from our neighbors that have been successful in jumpstarting their economies by becoming welcoming places?

One place we can look is Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell has confronted many of the struggles faced by other parts of New England: a declining economy and population loss. This has changed in recent years as the city has become diverse in its immigrant population. Businesses developed by new immigrants are burgeoning. For example, 350 Asian-owned businesses have been started creating thousands of jobs to people of all races and backgrounds.

Lowell is one of only seven communities in the U.S., and the only one in the Northeast, elected to be featured in the report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: “Helping Immigrants Become New Americans.”

The jobs being created are relevant to Maine. Farming, for example. Farming is so much a part of our history, but, as sources such the Historical Atlas of Maine show, it is also a part of our history of loss. There have been periods in Maine’s past where farms and farm families dwindled.

In Maine we often view farming with nostalgia but also with worry about whether it has a future. The loss of farms is related to the past loss of population, but, surprisingly, it’s also linked to recent gains of young people coming to Maine to seek out organic farming opportunities. They work to make a living under challenging conditions where much land is available.

For immigrants coming from rural backgrounds—which is the case for many immigrants—Maine presents intriguing opportunities. In Massachusetts, groups have started programs with titles such as “New Farmers New Beginnings” that build on the fact that many immigrants were farmers in their home countries and, with assistance, can learn to adapt their expertise to the climate conditions and economic circumstances of the Northeast.

Near Lowell, the owners of a multigenerational farm made part of their land available to immigrant farmers to re-establish their skills and grow traditional vegetables that would help to meet the food consumption needs of their immigrant community. Some of these farmers were elders in their community who had the goal not only to farm but to demonstrate to younger generations the potential of farming as a way to continue traditions.

And it is not just farming. Maine is far from being recognized only for its traditions in farming. There are other opportunities to tap into the skills that immigrants bring. Consider fishing.

Maine’s traditional fishing livelihoods are now endangered because of a decline in fish stocks. Mainers are turning to emerging approaches, such as aquaculture, to fill the fisheries livelihood gaps created by those declines. Some immigrants bring to the U.S. experience with aquaculture; as was the case in Lowell, aquaculture is familiar to many immigrants from Southeast Asia.

Some are also acutely aware of the devastation that results from the overuse of and pollution of a resource: The large freshwater “sea” Tonle Sap in Cambodia, now largely depleted of fish, once was a primary fish source for Southeast Asians. It was immigrants coming to Lowell who carried much of the deep knowledge of what happened to this resource.

All of this is very much about how we learn from each other to create a vibrant economic future. And it is also about how we do so without losing the past. Maine is sometimes negatively described as a state with an illustrious past but not much of a future. It is sometimes seen as emptying out—as losing its population, its strategies for growth and its way forward. Lowell was likewise described in this discouraging way: as having an eminent past as a birthplace of America’s industrial revolution but as having become an emptying, dying place.

Maine has the potential to be a leader in devising effective, innovative approaches to our economic challenges. Maine can not only learn from others’ experiences but can set the groundwork for resilient approaches. Such approaches would be rooted in Maine experiences, ethos and resources, and would consider what it would look like to develop strategies that take into account such factors as our weather, our economy and our dispersion of population.

How will current Mainers respond to all of this? In work on a different topic, University of Maine researchers have found that when Mainers see something as a part of Maine’s traditions, they welcome what otherwise might be seen as a scary new prospect.

Maine has a long tradition of welcoming newcomers. In the past newcomers came from French Canada and other parts of the world that might be different from where people are coming from now, but immigration remains an important part of our tradition and part of what has made Maine what it is today.

Before coming to the University of Maine, Linda Silka was a faculty member in the University of Massachusetts Lowell Department of Regional Economic and Social Development and director of the Center for Family, Work, and Community where she focused on building economic opportunities in communities. This article is reprinted with permission from the Bangor Daily News