Immigration in the United States is a controversial topic these days — no question.
But there should be no question that immigrants are good for Maine.
Maine faces a significant challenge as our population ages. Between 2010 and 2015, deaths exceeded births in the state. At least three rural hospitals have closed their obstetrics departments because too few babies were being born to justify the investment.
Retirements will account for 88 percent of job openings in Maine during the next several years, and we don’t have the people to fill them. Those are jobs across occupations and salary ranges. Without a growing population, the state will continue to struggle to fill the jobs of tomorrow.
It’s a slow-motion disaster in the making as our workforce shrinks.
Economic growth depends on expanding our workforce and attracting new people to Maine. We already can’t fill the jobs we have. We must address this critical labor shortage or job-creating businesses will go elsewhere. We must make our state a welcoming place and send the right signals in order to protect our economy.
Right now, the Legislature is stuck in an argument over the state budget. The House Republicans, mirroring Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, want to cut $5 million from General Assistance and deny aid to asylum seekers. These are people who are here legally, who want to be part of our community and who want to work and pay taxes but are caught in a federal immigration impasse that limits their opportunity in the short term.
Asylum seekers and some other immigrants in the country legally — repeat, legally — are barred from working for at least six months while their paperwork is processed by the federal government.
It’s an impossible trap. During the time they’re stuck in this bureaucratic limbo, these new arrivals have no way to make ends meet and provide for their families. If they work and get caught, they put their asylum application at risk. It’s high stakes for good people who have escaped violence and persecution, who are hoping only for safety and a better life in their new communities.
Maine law allows these individuals to receive short-term help from General Assistance, a last resort to help them as they await government permission to work.
We think we all agree our system of General Assistance should be fair and efficient and prioritize people who most need help. In the case of General Assistance for asylum seekers, it’s a short-term investment that pays almost immediate dividends for our state.
For asylum seekers, it’s not a question of if they will receive a work permit. It’s only a question of when. Once approved, data and anecdote tell us that these educated and skilled people get right to work, filling empty jobs, and begin contributing to the tax rolls.
Maine’s business community recognizes the importance of attracting and welcoming new people to Maine. More than anything else — more than taxes or regulations — it’s human capital that will drive Maine’s economic future.
According to a report released last year by New American Economy, immigrant-owned Maine businesses had $60.8 million in income in 2014 and employed more than 14,600 Mainers. That same year, immigrants in our state earned about $1.3 billion, paying more than $116 million in state and local taxes and nearly $250 million in federal taxes. Their spending power was over $954 million.
Maine needs immigrants to come to, stay in, and work in Maine. Welcoming them includes treating them as the full members of our communities that they are, even during brief stints of hardship.
During those times, providing General Assistance to asylum seekers is the right thing to do economically. The Legislature must recognize that when we provide a hand up to asylum seekers in Maine, that small short-term investment in them is a long-term investment in the economic health of the entire state. Everyone, all of us, regardless of where we live or what we do for work, will benefit.
In 2015, a bipartisan majority in our Legislature said that Maine should retain General Assistance benefits for asylum seekers. That was a smart economic decision then and would be even more so now.
Political expediency is no excuse for turning our back on asylum seekers, and it’s no excuse for undermining our economy.
Cathy Lee is the managing partner of Lee International. Mark St. Germain is principal and senior scientist at St. Germain Collins.