When I arrived in Portland in 2002 after emigrating from Ghana, my first job was washing dishes at Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant on Wharf Street. In 2016, more than a decade of hard work later, I was elected to Portland’s City Council and became the first African-born Muslim to hold public office in Maine. And yet, on that same day, Donald Trump was elected president after running a fiercely anti-immigrant campaign. In that moment, I realized how far I’d come – and how far we still have to go as a country.

Sixty-six new citizens, representing 35 countries, stand and pledge allegiance to the flag during their naturalization ceremony on Aug. 28. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

America is a nation of immigrants and a defender of human rights. But since taking office, President Trump has made every attempt to keep immigrants out. This includes refugees, who are some of the most vulnerable – and most vetted – people we accept. This year, Trump reduced the number of refugees to just 30,000, the lowest number in more than 40 years. And now he is considering cutting refugee admissions to zero. That’s not the America I know. This is supposed to be a place where people of all backgrounds can achieve prosperity through hard work. I’ve not only benefited from that system, I’ve seen firsthand the benefit refugees bring to this city.

The president doesn’t seem to understand that immigrants – and especially refugees – work doubly hard when they arrive in this country. I was so grateful for my own shot at the American Dream that I wanted to give back however I could. I volunteered with marginalized young people facing homelessness, incarceration and substance abuse. I worked for Seeds of Peace, a youth leadership program, where I facilitated dialogue between diverse groups of youth from across the state. Today, instead of washing dishes, I work at Portland Empowered, a program that elevates unengaged parent and student voices within the Portland public school system.

In my 17 years here, I’ve witnessed the limitless potential of Portland’s youth – many of them refugees. And I’ve seen the same potential in their parents. Refugees accounted for more than 75 percent of our city’s population growth between 2011 and 2016, according to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy. And because Maine is the oldest state in the country, with annual deaths outpacing births, new arrivals are our best hope for growing the economy. Even though refugees come here without the same family and professional networks other immigrant groups typically have, they’re quick to start building new lives and earning money. By the time refugees have been here 26 years, their households average $67,000 annually – more than the median income of American households overall.

Welcoming foreign-born residents has already been huge for Portland. Though immigrants and refugees only account for 4.6 percent of the city’s population, they punch above their weight in industries like manufacturing, where they account for 6.5 percent of the workforce, and health care, where they make up 5.4 percent of workers. They are also highly educated, making them ideal candidates to fill open positions in science, technology, engineering and math fields, where Maine is facing a significant labor shortage. And these jobs also enable them to pay taxes: $133 million at the federal level, $62 million to state and local. They’re then left with $521.3 million in spending power to shop and buy homes in our community. These new Americans make Portland more prosperous, our local restaurant scene more interesting and our schools more diverse.

Refugees in particular give so much to the country at large, and the best of our elected officials in Congress agree, including Maine’s own Susan Collins. In August, she and 17 other senators signed a bipartisan letter urging the White House to increase the resettlement cap. As the letter noted, refugees “ultimately contribute billions more in taxes than they receive in benefits” and are more likely than native-born Americans to start their own businesses.

Being in leadership means using your platform to advocate for marginalized people. That’s what I try to do through my work with Portland Empowered and as a city council member. And it’s what we must call on our president to do now. Tell him that ending the refugee resettlement program will set us back. Here in America, we move forward.


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