The controversy in the small Washington County town of Milbridge over plans to build a housing complex for the town’s Hispanic immigrant population is sadly typical. It is the same dynamic seen in urban areas around the country for more than a century each time a group of people who look or speak differently from the local population arrives.
The truth is that an influx of new people in areas hemorrhaging population — like Washington County — helps prime the local economy’s pump. An objective analysis suggests the new people are not taking away jobs nor are they relying on government social services any more than local residents are.
The Hispanics who began arriving as migrant blueberry harvesters 10-15 years ago do share some things in common, such as language and national origin. Most of the 600 or so in the county hail from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, according to Anais Tomezsko, executive director of Mano en Mano, the nonprofit that landed the $1 million competitive grant and loan to build the six-unit complex. Because “life was really hard for migrant farm laborers,” they secured permanent worker status or became citizens, she said. They are not illegal immigrants.
But the newcomers have as much in common with their new neighbors as they do with one another. They want to work in traditional resource-based industries (blueberries, aquaculture, fishing, wreath-making) which county residents have been doing for centuries. They are happy to settle down so their children can stay in school.
“They like how quiet it is,” Ms. Tomezsko said. “They feel safe, they feel welcome. They feel their kids are getting a good education.” Some have lived here long enough to have grandchildren. “They really like it here. People have said that to me repeatedly,” she said.
Just like many longtime residents, the immigrants piece together seasonal jobs, and they are often jobs that would go unfilled otherwise. “It’s not as if these jobs are not available to local folks,” Ms. Tomezsko said. A local blueberry packing firm recently considered moving its operation to Canada, and might have done so without a reliable labor pool, she added.
Ms. Tomezsko points to a recent Department of Labor study that shows farmworkers access government services at a much lower rate than the rest of the population, so a perceived burden on assistance programs may be more myth than reality.
Concerns about traffic, noise, property values and other perceived threats related to the housing project may have some basis in reality, but residents should work to understand that their neighbors — 100-150 former migrants in Milbridge alone — are here to stay. And they should work to understand that the new residents give the region what much of eastern and northern Maine desperately needs: population growth.