Change is afoot! It seems the state of Maine might be more inclined to embrace immigrants going forward. Or they may have to, given its changing demographics, which are not conducive to building its workforce or its future.
This rationale has been on my mind since I heard a piece on NPR on “All Things Considered” almost exactly a year ago. Maine is the not only the whitest state but it is also the oldest state. Combine that with low birth rates, and that means new Mainers are not being created in enough volume to supply us with a future workforce. In other words, our future isn’t looking too good. We need new people. And after years of looking askance at new Mainers who are often immigrants from non-white countries, it seems we are beginning to embrace these people as the “new Mainers” in hope of boosting our job force ranks.
In addition to that NPR piece, an echoing piece in the Bangor Daily News just over a week ago suggested that with declining populations in much of the state — and, again, our surplus of older people vs. younger ones — the state absolutely needs to focus on attracting immigrants.
For many, this marks progress and gives them warm feelings. But I have to confess, every time I read an article extolling the value of immigrants to Maine’s bottom line, it does not leave me with a warm feeling. Instead, I wonder and fret over how much of their souls and culture will they be expected to check at the front door in order to become Mainers.
I think about the fact that we are a nation that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of non-white bodies. Given that many of Maine's immigrants today are non-white, this feels too close to our historic roots as a nation — not simply slavery, but the continued practice of repeatedly exploiting willing newcomers to our nation. We have a history where immigrants — non-white ones in particular — are not seen as fully human but as revenue streams, income and a path to sustainability for everyone else. And often, they're seen as groups to blame our problems on while they do the labor we want them to. We have pressured them to assimilate rather than letting their cultures add to our own. We have used them, over and over again.
Embracing immigrants to boost Maine workforces seems like a win. But at what cost? Maine, like the rest of America, has never addressed its racial sins and history. We are unwilling to acknowledge that racism is systemic and embedded into all of our systems — not merely a personal feeling of a few hate groups or some embarrassing uncles and aunts at the Thanksgiving gathering. Given that many of Maine’s newcomers are what in America is considered Black, and that being Black in America comes with history and challenges, are we as a state prepared to address systemic racism? Are we prepared to support our newcomers to grapple with the reality of what it means to be considered Black in America in general? Much less in a state with a two-term governor who blames Black and brown people for all the drug problems in the state.
Many immigrants to Maine come from majority-Black countries where being Black does not carry the same connotation that it carries in the U.S. They don’t identify with American Black people in many cases, though they get much of the same racism. I recently had an exchange with a Haitian immigrant in Orono who shared with me that he felt that he was not Black and that he saw being Black as a bad thing. In the ideal world, he would just be a man and he would be judged on his own merit but we don’t live in the ideal world. We live in a world that for generations has trafficked in the myth of American exceptionalism. But that exceptionalism has only been available to some people. To deny that reality is disingenuous as best and dangerous at worst.
To look to an outside group to save us doesn’t feel right, especially when the current infrastructure opens them up to a less than fair arrangement. Instead of seeing immigrants as a way to save Maine, perhaps we would be better off looking at our immigrant brothers and sisters as people first. Embrace them and their cultures and actually welcome them, instead of coveting their labor.
In a nation with the rich getting an ever-bigger slice of the pie, we in the 98 percent need to be looking for ways to mutually support one another regardless of color or culture, not to find more backs upon which to put the yoke. Let’s first envision a path that allows immigrants to lay down roots and create new beginnings — and for Maine to be enriched by having more cultural breadth and depth. Not simply a larger, younger, darker workforce.