Immigrants are contributing a lot to Maine, and there is much more we could — and should — be doing to encourage them.
One way is through a bill from Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta — An Act to Attract, Educate, and Retain New Mainers to Strengthen the Workforce. The bill will fund a full-time coordinator for a welcome center initiative to attract and retain foreign professionals. It will increase availability of English classes for immigrants and create vocation-specific English language acquisition and workforce training programs too.
Katz’s bill will provide local planning support for communities dealing with new immigrant populations and for communities that want to attract immigrants proactively to address depopulation and workforce shortages. And it would establish a cabinet-level Office of New Mainers to coordinate state strategies and programs that attract, integrate, and retain immigrants into Maine’s workforce, economy and communities. I especially like that idea.
Traveling the state to find our best inns and restaurants for our weekly travel column, Linda and I have learned that immigrants are making significant contributions to our economy.
Our favorite Indian restaurant is Bombay Mahal in Brunswick. Raj is from India and his wife is from Africa. They’ve been in business for 25 years, and Raj has trained many others who have opened other Indian restaurants around the state.
Our favorite Thai restaurant is Long Grain in Camden. Fabulous food, and a small space of just 30 seats, although they are finally expanding to 50 seats this year. The owners are from Thailand. He cooks and she works the front of the house.
We are blessed with an amazing restaurant, the Dancing Elephant, in Fairfield. This Bangladeshi family renovated a building, including an apartment upstairs where one of the owners stays during the week, although the family still lives in Portland. The first time we went for dinner, the owner’s wife and two high-school age kids were there, working the dinner shift. They’d driven up from Portland and were returning that night. These are very hard-working people.
The story of Mexicans in Washington County is a particularly inspiring and enlightening one. Today, the Latino community in Milbridge and surrounding towns is 350 people strong. Quite a few are parents who moved to Washington County as kids. Many of these first-generation Mainers have left the cycle of seasonal employment that brought their families north. As bilingual graduates of area high schools and colleges, they are able to stay in the region by working in health care, education, food service or social services.
The Vazquez family came from central Mexico three decades ago. They served migrant blueberry workers for many years from a food truck and now have a great restaurant, Vasquez, on Route 1 in Milbridge. We wrote about it last year, and the next time we stopped — we never drive by this place — they had posted our column next to the takeout windows. The couple’s granddaughter was taking orders, and told us their grandfather couldn’t read English, so she read our column to him. Sure did make us feel good.
We need a lot more of this. I’ve heard concerns about the amount of money needed to fund the programs in this bill. I suggested that legislators look through the proposed budget and find items that are not as important as these. I’m sure there are many.
I’ve been an advocate for hunters and anglers all my life, including 18 years as executive director and lobbyist for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. So you can put my next statement in that context. In the supplemental budget this year, the Legislature included nearly $5 million for fish hatcheries. I ask legislators: Are fish hatcheries more important than helping Maine’s immigrants quickly and effectively become contributors to our economy?
Finally, I will urge legislators to read a wonderful and important new book: “Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine,” by Catherine Besteman. Besteman is a Colby professor who spent a year with her husband in Somalia, just a few years before the country blew up in a horrible civil war, partly funded by $1 billion in aid that our country gave to Somalia’s dictator.
Somewhat ironically, years later in Lewiston, Besteman found some of the Somali folks she’d lived with. Her book tells us about her experience in Somalia and explores all the controversies and challenges of the Somalis who now live in Lewiston. This book is for all of us, as is Sen. Katz’s bill.
My Readfield United Methodist Church has embraced the welcoming attitude we’re seeking all over Maine. On Saturday, April 29, from noon to 2 p.m., we’re hosting a “Town Welcoming Social” for new residents of Readfield, Mount Vernon, and Fayette. All are invited to join us and let these new folks know how much they are appreciated.
We’ll offer info on resources, groups, businesses, restaurants, and activities in our communities, and provide a very tasty free lunch. I encourage you join us if you live in these three towns, or do the same in your city or town.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.