6.06.2007

Maine Needs Immigrants

Don't hang out 'no vacancy' sign at Kittery: Maine needs immigrants to grow and prosper, which means being welcoming, not hostile (by P. Vincent O'Malley, MaineToday - 6.5.07)

Cead Mille Failte is a Gaelic expression of Irish hospitality that literally translates to "one hundred thousand welcomes."

As the son of Irish immigrants who were welcomed to Maine more than 80 years ago to find work, raise a family and practice their faith, I believe the only way to have a prospering Maine is to have a welcoming Maine.

Maine's periods of great economic growth have coincided with its periods of high levels of in-migration. This is no coincidence.

If the Irish had not come in large numbers in the 1840s to 1860s, there would have been no people to build Maine's railroads, canals and wharves.

If the French-Canadians had not come in the 1920s, there would have been nobody to cut the wood and make the paper. Conversely, during the 1950s and 1960s no one moved to Maine. Our economy was stagnant.

Even though in-migration is the lifeblood of the state's growth, the natural reaction of those who are here is to resent the intrusion. During the 1840s and 1850s, the "Know Nothing" political party thrived in Maine. Its platform was to keep foreigners, Catholics and especially the Irish out.

The term "know nothing," came from the secret-society aspect of the party -- when members were asked what the party was doing, they were instructed to say "I know nothing."

The Know Nothings fielded candidates and organized demonstrations. In Ellsworth in 1852 they tarred and feathered a Catholic priest, Father John Bapst, and carried him around town on a rail.

One wrote to a Maine newspaper, "Now, sir, you must admit that the Irish Catholics of this country are a poor priest-ridden class of individuals, entirely unfit for civilized society."

Eventually the Irish became established in Maine and were among the natives who became upset by the next wave of in-migration, the French Canadians coming down from Quebec.

Even as the French helped to spur a new era of growth in the Maine woods, farms and mills, resentment resurfaced.

The Ku Klux Klan had substantial membership in Maine and marched in many Maine towns in the 1920s. The Klan was anti-black, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic and generally anti-foreigner. Ed Muskie recalled seeing a cross burning on a hill as a child in Rumford.

This, too, eventually faded away as the French became integrated into the mainstream of Maine society.

Today, Maine is again at one of its periods of economic sluggishness. Maine's population is aging. We have a low birth rate. Without significant in-migration of new families with children, our labor force is projected to decline in the next 20 years.

We desperately need young men and women, especially those with children, to choose Maine as their future home.

Our hope is with women like Shalom Odokara, a Nigerian-born educator who moved to Maine in 2002, and who helps immigrant women learn English and start businesses.

Shalom is opening a complex in Auburn that will have a factory where women can work and earn a living wage, a day care facility for their children, a health clinic and a bank.

Maine needs to be welcoming in order to grow. But, as in times past, there is resistance to newcomers. In the Legislature this year, there have been several bills to withhold medical or general assistance benefits to people until they have passed a "waiting period," which usually is 30 days. This is an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem.

In 2006, less than 1 percent of recipients of public benefits including food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) or Medicaid in Maine came from out-of-state.

For every recipient who moved into Maine during the past four years, six moved out. There is no evidence that anyone is moving to Maine to receive benefits. In fact, our benefits are less generous than many of the states that people are leaving.

These bills are not about finances. They are about sending a "You are not welcome in Maine" message to immigrant families.

We all must remember our immigrant roots and extend..."one hundred thousand welcomes" to new families who will help our state become vibrant.

Maine's periods of great economic growth have coincided with its periods of high levels of in-migration. This is no coincidence.