In the past 20 years, something surprising happened in Milbridge: it reversed the trends of population and economic decline that have plagued so many other small towns in our state. How did this happen?
As executive director of Mano en Mano, a nonprofit that supports Milbridge’s immigrant farmworker population, I’ve witnessed many farmworkers move permanently to Down East Maine and some have become U.S. citizens. The stability that permanent residency creates for those families has empowered them to purchase homes, enroll their children in school, start businesses and become a steady consumer base for local business. In Washington County alone, the Latinx community contributes $4 million to the local economy and supports 60 jobs annually. In short, they have helped revitalize our community. Unfortunately, our current immigrant laws are causing other towns to miss out.
That’s why I believe the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which the House of Representatives passed in December, is such a good idea. This bill would reform the H-2A temporary farmworker program and could grant legal status to 325,000 undocumented farmworkers who have spent years working to feed all of us. This would not only provide U.S. farmers the legal and stable workforce they desperately need, but allow immigrant farmworkers to make real contributions in our communities.
It’s something that would help agriculture-heavy states like California, Colorado and Florida, but also smaller farming regions like Maine’s own 2nd Congressional District. Because of the importance of farmworkers in our communities and economy, everybody benefits.
Maine’s agriculture sector adds $1.4 billion to our state economy, according to Maine Farmland Trust. But we also have a problem: A well-documented farmworker shortage that saw the number of full-time field and crop workers drop by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2014, according to New American Economy. Most current U.S. citizens don’t take these jobs, and those who do prove extremely unreliable, according to the American Farm Bureau.
A worker shortage — in agriculture or any industry — is an especially big deal in Maine. Our population is aging rapidly. Not only are we the oldest state in the country, the number of deaths outweighs the number of births that take place here annually. That means a shrinking workforce, a dwindling economy and fewer tax dollars to go around, especially in rural, low-population areas like Milbridge. This is where immigrants come in.
In 2010, the total population for Milbridge was 1,353 people. By 2017, we were up to 1,510. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s an increase of more than 10 percent. The rest of Maine saw a mere 0.8 percent population increase during that same period — much of it driven by immigrants coming to our state’s larger cities. Meanwhile, many smaller, rural communities nearly vanished. You can begin to understand the incredible growth that immigrants represent for rural areas like ours.
Foreign-born residents in our congressional district only account for 2.7 percent of the overall population, according to New American Economy, but they are making big economic contributions. For one thing, 57.2 percent of our district’s immigrant population are of working age — a huge asset when the majority of your state’s population is at or above retirement age. Their households have $280.2 million in spending power and pay an $97 million in taxes annually. Additionally, 750 of them are entrepreneurs, creating much-needed jobs. Nearly 5,000 of them are homeowners.
By passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the House with bipartisan support, our elected officials have already shown that both sides agree on this legislation. Now I urge Maine’s senators to put party politics aside and do the same. It’s in the best interests of America and of Maine.
Ian Yaffe is the executive director of Mano en Mano in Milbridge.