Throughout Maine’s history, people living here have expressed fear about immigrants.

Centuries ago, members of the Wabanaki nations worried that an influx of European immigrants would engage in violent conduct, spread disease, and take their land (they were right). In the 19th century, another set of newcomers – Catholic immigrants – experienced a nationwide wave of violence at the hands of native-born Protestants who saw Catholics as thugs, criminals and insurgent terrorists. In July of 1854, crowds of Mainers reacted to Catholic immigration by blowing up a Catholic school in Ellsworth, torturing a Catholic priest, and burning a Catholic church in Bath to the ground.

In the 21st century, a new wave of immigrants is arriving in Maine, generating new worries. Most salient among these have been immigrants from Africa, most noticeably from Somalia, who began settling in Lewiston in 2001. According to the most recent estimates, roughly 6,000 African-born immigrants have settled in Maine. African immigrants to Maine amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of Maine’s population but have generated disproportionate attention. A typical anti-immigrant pundit (who does not live in Maine) labels Lewiston’s Somali community as “terrorists,” “criminals,” and a “cancer” of “thuggery.” Colby College Professor Catherine Besteman’s ethnographic work uncovers a strong sentiment among Lewistonians who believe African immigrants are an economic and cultural burden dragging the city down.

Fear of newcomers is not unusual. But systematic data suggests that these fears are not factually grounded.

Crime reports are collected by police officers in Lewiston, then tallied by the FBI every year in the annual report Crime in the United States. These reports show that from 1985 to 2000, the years before Somalis began to arrive in Lewiston, there were 308.4 violent crimes per year per 100,000 population, and 5,933.2 property crimes per year per 100,000 population. In the years from 2001 to 2014 (during and after the main influx of Somali immigration) there were 238.4 violent crimes per year per 100,000 population, and 3,510.4 property crimes per year per 100,000 population.

There’s been no crime wave in Lewiston since Somali immigrants arrived. Instead, Lewiston’s crime rates have fallen during a period in which other Maine cities’ crime rates (sorry, Augusta) have actually gone up.

As we all know, the U.S. Census Bureau counts all residents every 10 years. But did you know that it also carries out a huge annual survey of people in every American city and town? The 2014 American Community Survey reveals the following about African-born immigrants to Maine:

• 4 in 10 African immigrants to Maine have already sought and obtained U.S. citizenship;

• 6 in 10 African immigrants to Maine report they have learned to speak English “very well”;

• African immigrants are young (median age: 28.6 years old) compared to native Mainers (43.4 years old), adding vitality to the oldest state in the nation;

• African immigrants are not significantly different from native Mainers in the share who have obtained a college degree, in the rate of labor force participation, or in the rate of volunteering to serve in this country’s military;

• Although the relatively young African immigrants to Maine have not yet married at as high a rate as native Mainers, they have a lower rate of divorce.

In short, African immigrants to Maine are young, educated, engaged, and integrating into American society. They’re following the path of many immigrants before them, invigorating rather than draining the state we share.

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.


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