Maine has an immigration problem, but it’s not the one that you’ve been hearing about.

As the state with the oldest median age, we are heading into a demographic winter where the number of retirees will exceed the capacity of the working population to pay the bills. If left alone, according to a 2013 study by the Maine Chamber of Commerce, the ratio of working-age Mainers to retirees will be cut almost in half by 2025. That’s a trend that will smother economic development, impoverish the state government and create conflict as young and old fight over scarce resources.

The chamber estimates that we will need to add 65,000 working-age immigrants by the year 2020 to avoid further economic stagnation. Maine has an immigration problem, all right. We need more of it, and fast.

Unfortunately, immigration oversight is a federal responsibility, and fast is not how things get done at the federal level. Bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform has stalled in Congress, where Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has refused to even hold a vote on a bill that passed the Senate. House Republicans have further refused to send an alternate bill to the Senate. Instead, we’ve let the issue crystallize into a series of negative campaign ads that distort reality and make progress on the legislative level more unlikely.


Congressional inaction has exacerbated a crisis. President Barack Obama has warned Republican leaders that if they don’t act, he will. They have not moved, so he should do whatever is within his constitutional powers to make better use of federal resources.

Grave warnings that Obama could insult Congress and provoke it into stalemate would be laughable if this weren’t such a serious matter. Congress has had six years to do something while Obama waited. It has done nothing.

Even typically sensible Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are warning the White House that the president would be acting outside the scope of his authority. Instead of trying to stop the president from doing something that should have been done a long time ago, the senators should be pushing their colleagues to move faster.

It’s important to recognize what action the president had proposed taking. He can’t change the law unilaterally, but the nation’s chief executive has the responsibility to set priorities. One of the mechanisms available to him is prosecutorial discretion.

The Justice Department regularly decides how it will deploy its resources. We have brick-and-mortar medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine because the federal government has decided not to prosecute the operators, even though trafficking marijuana is illegal under federal law.

That was the power that Obama used when he deferred deportation actions against the class of undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers,” who were brought the country as children.

Obama did not give them citizenship or permanent residency. He simply created a way for them to apply for permission to work or go to school here legally for two years without looking over their shoulders for immigration agents. That relieved pressure on overcrowded immigration courts, leaving more resources available for removal proceedings against immigrants with serious criminal records.


What the White House is said to be considering is extending that temporary deferral of deportation to other classes of immigrants, such as the parents or spouses of U.S. citizens. Depending on which categories are included, millions more people would have temporary legal status, enabling them to work and contribute.

It would be impossible to deport all of the 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants now in the country, even if that were desirable — and Maine’s circumstance shows that it would not be desirable. The large number of “illegal” immigrants in the United States is more a sign of a dysfunctional immigration system than of rampant criminality by people who want to participate in the American dream.

Obama is mulling a temporary measure. If members of Congress don’t think it goes far enough, they have the ability to do something about it.

Millions of immigrants and their families should not have to wait forever while politicians posture. And Maine should not have to wait much longer to solve its “immigration problem.”

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