Claude Rwaganje is hoping that Maine’s next governor will be kinder to immigrants than the present occupant of the Blaine House.
Rwaganje and other immigrants to Maine said they are listening closely to what the four candidates hoping to replace Gov. Paul LePage are saying when it comes to the state’s newest residents – such as how much state aid they should be afforded and what policies they might advance to support immigrant communities.
Rwaganje, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo more than 22 years ago and sought asylum in Maine, is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. He has been voting for years and said he will be at the polls on Nov. 6.
“The last eight years haven’t been really great on our behalf,” said Rwaganje, the executive director of Prosperity Maine, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides financial literacy education and other services for immigrants.
Foreign-born residents make up only 3.4 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million people, according to 2017 estimates done by the Census Bureau, but immigrants are a key component in addressing the labor shortage, a major problem for both the state and national economies. Immigrants and their children also are a factor in the state’s population growth. Since 2000, Maine’s population has grown by just 61,000 people, including 9,000 who were born to immigrant parents.
That accounts for about 14 percent of the state’s population growth over the last 17 years. About half of Maine’s foreign-born residents also are naturalized U.S. citizens.
LePage, a Republican, has said he supports legal immigration in Maine but also leveled criticism and waged legal battles against cities, including Portland, for using state tax money to help immigrants who were legally in the U.S. but who did not yet have all the documentation necessary to begin work. His administration has said welfare benefits need to be used for only the most vulnerable citizens, especially the disabled and elderly.
LePage has been especially hostile to asylum-seeking immigrants. He injected himself into a dispute between Maine’s county sheriffs and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement over detaining undocumented suspects beyond what was allowed under state law in 2017. In 2014, the administration stopped reimbursing municipalities for General Assistance paid to asylum seekers and other legal non-citizens, prompting legal challenges from Portland and Westbrook, as well as the Maine Municipal Association.
Rwaganje said many immigrants feel LePage has overlooked the positive impacts new Mainers are having on the state, especially by providing skilled labor to the workforce. Rwaganje said immigrant workers pay sales, income and property taxes, contributing about $1.8 billion to the economy in the Portland area alone, according to Census Bureau figures.
‘PUT US AT THE TABLE’
In 2015, immigrants in Maine paid more than $245 million in federal taxes and another $116 million in state and local taxes, according to a report by the American Immigration Council, a Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights. “The politician who is not paying attention to these hard data will be off track,” Rwaganje said.
At a candidates’ debate in Portland last week, independent Alan Caron told the story of his family, French Catholics who emigrated to Maine from Canada, and how they and other Catholics from Ireland and Italy all faced intense discrimination. He said immigrants will be treated with respect if he is elected.
“We shouldn’t care what the color of their hair is or what their first language is or who they worship,” Caron said. “We should only care that they want to join us here and build a new prosperity – that will be my policy.”
Deqa Dhalac, an immigrant from Somalia who has lived in Maine for the last 25 years, said she wants Maine’s next governor to show with actions their good will toward immigrants. “Don’t just do the talk, walk the walk as well – do everything equally,” said Dhalac, a naturalized citizen who is involved in get-out-the-vote efforts in South Portland. If a governor truly embraces immigrants they will include immigrants in their cabinet picks and in top roles within their administration, she said.
“Put us at the table,” she said. “We are always on the menu.”
The children of immigrants are also looking for inclusive leadership, Dhalac added, otherwise many will leave Maine for more diverse communities in other states, worsening the demographic challenge of being the oldest state in the nation.
Shawn Moody, the Republican candidate for governor, said at the debate that he would focus on ending the long wait many immigrants face when trying to start work in Maine. He also promised to better connect immigrants who have work skills with jobs that are not being filled by using career counselors and interpreters.
“Whether they were an electrician, whether they were an engineer, whether they were a nurse, so we can continue their life over here instead of stopping it dead and expect them to start all over again,” Moody said.
As to public assistance, Moody echoed LePage’s position, saying it should be provided “just long enough to ensure they are gainfully employed because that’s essentially what they want, the American dream, and sitting at home getting assistance and not having a pathway to employment is not doing it.”
LEPAGE’S POLICIES ‘ARE NOT FRIENDLY’
John Ochero, 30, who came to Maine from South Sudan at the age of 17, said politicians need to recognize the contributions being made by immigrants in Maine. Ochero, vice president of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said LePage visited with South Sudanese residents when he was running for governor.
“LePage came and was very friendly towards our community,” said Ochero, also the interim chairman of the South Sudanese Community Association. “Now we know for sure his policies are not friendly towards immigrants.”
Ochero said he’s hoping that Maine’s next governor will be better at removing barriers to the work force.
“Sometimes we are missing out on a lot of good value that can be provided by newer immigrants in this state,” he said.
Janet Mills, the Democrat in the race, said as governor she would expand English language instruction for immigrants. She said 40 percent of Portland immigrants already hold college degrees – an education level higher that of native Mainers.
“There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to put them to work as soon as possible,” Mills said. “We need them in our work force.” But Mills also said there was no getting around the basic human needs of shelter and food, and that the state should help fund local immigrant resource centers that connect people with housing and work.
Independent candidate Terry Hayes urged people to have empathy for immigrants who have fled their homelands and come to Maine for a new life. She noted that many who flee violence are the best educated in their countries, and that Maine’s economy had been saved by immigration multiple times in the state’s past.
“And frankly, if we don’t welcome them and help support them until our government let’s them support themselves, then it’s to our detriment,” Hayes said.
‘WE HAVE A LOT AT STAKE’
Abdullahi Ahmed, an assistant principal at Deering High School, came to Maine 18 years ago after fleeing Somalia and then living in a refugee camp in Pakistan for 10 years. He said he wants an inclusive governor, noting that working-class people in Maine all share similar struggles, regardless of their backgrounds.
That includes access to affordable health care, an enormous issue for immigrants this year, Ahmed said. LePage’s resistance to an expansion of Medicaid hurts many low-income working immigrant families, he said. Ahmed said he hopes Maine’s next governor will be, “vulnerable enough in that they can put his or herself out there and ask, ‘I need your help, how can we do this? Let’s be creative, let’s work together.’”
The expectations for the next governor are high in Maine’s immigrant community, and a partisan who pushes for one-party rule of the State House will not be embraced, he said.
“We came to this country with the hope that things are better here and we don’t want our hopes to die, we have a lot at stake,” Ahmed said. “One party ruling will lead to one person ruling and we know what one-person rule looks like firsthand.”
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: