Maine businesses need nearly 3,000 seasonal foreign workers to support the ever-expanding tourism industry, and as the calendar turns to June, they aren’t close to getting them.

Coming to their aid, though, is Gov. Paul LePage, and he’s bringing recently released male prisoners — 17 of them, enough to fill a few shifts in the kitchen, and maybe clean a few rooms, too.

To be fair, the governor originally wanted to commute the sentences of 100 men, and he’s working on some commutations for women as well, all in the hope of helping an industry struggling to find workers in a state where the workforce is shrinking and unemployment is low, and in a country where foreign workers aren’t as welcome as they used to be.

And he should get some points for creativity too — there’s no doubt that Maine needs every person it can spare to contribute to the workforce.

But in making a big show of releasing the prisoners — outside of the established commutation process — and again stating his regret that Mainers younger than 16 aren’t allowed to work, LePage is trying to solve Maine’s biggest problem with gimmicks, while refusing to consider a more simple solution already embraced by business leaders.

It’s not that the commutations are a bad idea. Our prisons should not be holding low-risk, nonviolent offenders if there is an adequate way to supervise them in the community. Incarcerating them is enormously expensive, and supremely counterproductive if the point is to restore them as contributing members of society.


However, 17 men and 20 women, as estimated by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick, will not solve the worker shortage in Maine’s tourism industry, which is struggling to fill jobs following cuts to the H-2B visa program for unskilled foreign workers.

The number of visas issued this year was effectively cut in half, and though the recent congressional budget agreement restored the visas, applications are now lagging at the Department of Homeland Security, leaving hotels, inns and restaurants scrambling.

But with Maine businesses requesting more than 2,800 visas through the H-2B program, fewer than 40 recently released prisoners won’t make a dent.

And even if you released all the prisoners, and allowed young teenagers to work, that wouldn’t solve the math of Maine’s most intractable problem. The state’s population is old and stagnant — it simply isn’t producing enough people, incarcerated and otherwise, to fill the positions that businesses need to prosper and grow. That’s true not only for the hospitality industry, but the manufacturing, construction and health care sectors too.

It’s an immensely difficult problem, but it is clear that the solution must come from without. Immigration, from elsewhere in the United States and all over the world, is necessary to fuel Maine’s economy and lift everyone up.

“If we are to continue to have the strong economy we all seek for our people we have to have the immigrant influence on our future the same way we have in the past,” Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said earlier this year. “We cannot address our workforce needs without being welcoming to immigrants.”

Yet LePage has stood in the way of this effort, painting the refugees who have come to Maine as disease-ridden, and possibly criminals or terrorists, instead of highlighting how they are already contributing to the economy, and talking about how the state can do more to help these new Mainers get their footing. In a fit, he — symbolically — pulled the state out of the federal refugee resettlement program.

To be sure, there are challenges that come from having an immigrant and refugee population. But there is also much to gain, not the least being a vibrant influx of people to a state that desperately needs them.

That’s the kind of long-term solution that Maine’s workforce needs. LePage should set aside the short-term gimmicks, and follow the lead of the business community.

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