Strimling wants an Office of New Americans in Portland. Here’s how immigrants have helped other cities grow

As part of the his first State of the City address Monday night, Mayor Ethan Strimling expressed support for the creation of an Office of New Americans in Portland.

I briefly touched on that as part of a larger post about the speech, which you can find by clicking here.

But since this Office of New Americans proposal is one the BDN championed for Portland in particular as part of our multimedia Economy Project last fall, I’m going to give it a little more attention here in a follow-up.

Strimling said this morning he has talked with City Manager Jon Jennings about including seed money in this year’s budget to help fund a working group charged with getting this new office off the ground.

The mayor said seven of the nine members of the City Council identified establishment of the office as a top priority in a goal-setting meeting last month, and the council’s economic development committee will get the first crack at fleshing out the details.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about it,” Strimling said. “I talked about it in the campaign and there was strong energy from the community. … It’s about building our economy, so it’s about [asking], ‘What are we doing to maximize the potential of people who are arriving on our shores?’ People are coming here from all over the world with amazing backgrounds and experiences. This is about tapping into that incredible resource and incredible potential.”

While Strimling and the City Council will ultimately decide how a Portland Office of New Americans works in reality, in our Economy Project piece last fall, we envisioned the group tackling the following jobs:

  • serve as a central hub for — and find efficiencies among — all the immigrant service organizations currently working in the state;
  • advocate for the needs of new immigrants in policy discussions from a position of political strength;
  • communicate welcoming messages to immigrant communities here and abroad through targeted campaigns and courting coverage of successful immigrant-run businesses or families;
  • provide targeted tuition offset grants to help immigrants overcome small training or language barriers to new employment opportunities;
  • work to recruit more foreign businesses and business leaders to Maine, potentially opening up international markets to more Maine companies in addition to growing employment here; and
  • help high-value H1-B visa holders — who are foreign nationals coming to the state to work specific, often skilled, jobs — get Green Cards and settle in Maine permanently.

These types of dedicated, multifaceted approaches to helping encourage immigration have popped up around the country in recent years as immigration has proven valuable in a range of cities seeking to overturn troubling population or economic declines (such as the one being felt in Maine).

Here are some quick case studies, with data compiled by the Partnership for a New American Economy:

Atlanta, Georgia

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed in 2014 launched a Welcoming Atlanta Working Group, which then recommended the establishment of an Office of Multicultural Affairs in part to harness the city’s growth through immigration.

Between 2000 and 2012, Atlanta’s foreign-born population growth outpaced its American-born population growth, 22 percent to 1 percent, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the city’s overall population growth.

Immigrants are now collectively driving up the city’s entrepreneurship levels. They’re overrepresented among the city’s small business owners (7.8 percent of the population is foreign-born, 11 percent of the small business owners are), and are 46 percent more likely to start businesses than native-born Atlantans.

Nashville, Tennessee

Then-Mayor Karl Dean launched that city’s New Americans Advisory Council in 2009 and follow-on Office of New Americans five years later.

Over the first decade-plus of the 21st century, foreign-born residents have represented 60 percent of the population growth of Nashville, again outpacing the American-born residents in terms of entrepreneurship, with 8 percent of the newcomers starting new businesses compared to 3.8 percent of the native-born people.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley launched an immigration task force in 2014 on the heels of nearby Dayton’s success with its high-profile Welcome Dayton program.

Researchers determined foreign-born residents played a key role in filling a skilled workforce gap. Despite representing less than 4 percent of the overall population, foreign-born residents make up 6.8 percent of the high-tech workforce, 10 percent of the city’s STEM workers and 11.3 percent of the local information technology workers.

Louisville, Kentucky

Mayor Greg Fischer launched the city’s Office for Globalization in 2011. Even though Louisville falls well behind most major cities in terms of foreign-born populations — only 5 percent of the city’s population is foreign born, compared to more than 18 percent in the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas — immigrants are punching over their proverbial weight class in several key economic areas.

More than 14 percent of the city’s so-called “main street businesses” are owned by immigrants, and more than 18 percent of the workers in the city’s manufacturing, education and healthcare industries are foreign-born.

Denver, Colorado

In Denver, where city officials relatively recently established an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, foreign-born households account for $6.9 billion in spending power and pay $673 million in state and local taxes.

The city’s influx of immigrants over the first part of the 21st century is credited with creating or preserving more than 4,000 manufacturing jobs there, by bolstering a workforce enough to support local plants that might otherwise have had to relocate in search of labor.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.