Portland’s Office of New Americans: An economic boost? Or an insult?

Dan Wallace, director of state and local initiatives for the Partnership for a New American Economy, speaks before the Portland City Council's Economic Development Committee Tuesday night at City Hall. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Dan Wallace, director of state and local initiatives for the Partnership for a New American Economy, speaks before the Portland City Council’s Economic Development Committee Tuesday night at City Hall. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Economists in Maine largely agree the state has a workforce crisis on its hands.

Maine is the oldest state in the nation, and over the next two decades or so, about a 109,000 more people will retire from the workforce than will grow into working age and replace them.

And in Greater Portland, which accounts for more than half the state’s economy, the job market is already nearly growing too fast for the labor pool to keep up with.

“We have a huge problem here,” said Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce Tuesday night. “Our unemployment rate is down to 2.6 percent here. That should be good news, except we can’t find enough workers.”

This is an issue the Bangor Daily News and other outlets have covered extensively, and one solution the BDN has championed has been the creation of an Office of New Americans in Portland to help encourage greater immigration to the state, to replenish that workforce with statistically younger, and often educated workers from around the globe.

The Portland City Council and Mayor Ethan Strimling began to pursue the idea, naming it one of their top priorities for the coming year during their annual goal-setting meeting in January.

That math problem, of older workers leaving the job market faster than younger workers can replace them, still needs to be solved. And greater immigration may still be the best pipeline available to add new workers to balance the ledger.

But a line of people — longtime Portlanders and recent arrivals to the country alike — stepped forward Tuesday night to say launching an Office of New Americans would be tone deaf.

The idea was described as potentially divisive and one which could, despite the best of intentions, further alienate a group of people who already feel like they’re struggling to fit in.

An Office of New Americans could be taken as insulting to thousands of people who have fought hard to get here and establish themselves as Americans — not New Americans — as well as dozens of local organizations that are already working to help immigrants and refugees get settled in Portland, many said.

On Tuesday night, the City Council’s Economic Development Committee held its first public hearing on the subject of how, or whether, to establish an Office of New Americans (the name is, as committee chairman David Brenerman noted, “just a placeholder”).

The hearing went on for more than two hours, and many who spoke supported the idea. A number of people, including several who identified themselves as immigrants, said there’s a real need to establish a central office that can coordinate for and reduce overlap among the sometimes disconnected nonprofits already working to help recent arrivals overcome workforce barriers.

[MORE: Coastal Enterprises Inc. explained many of those barriers still holding immigrants back professionally in a recent report.]

Dan Wallace — director of state and local initiatives for the New York City-based Partnership for a New American Economy — gave the committee a presentation that went into depth on how programs to boost immigration in other cities around the country have reinvigorated slumping economies.

I’ll include a copy of Wallace’s remarks at the end of this post for readers to absorb in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt:

“Three years after the [Ohio city’s immigration program ‘Welcome Dayton’] was launched, Dayton has attracted enough newcomers — both foreign-born and U.S.-born — to reverse its population decline for the first time in years, and this growth has brought economic benefits to the entire community. As a direct result of the increase in the number of immigrants living there, Dayton has seen an increase of $116 million in its home values, a $115 million boost in consumer spending power, and a $15 million annual boost to state and local tax revenue.”

This case file may resonate in Portland, which would have shrunken to its smallest population in nearly a century if not for an influx of immigrants since 2000.

And at Tuesday night’s committee meeting, nobody stood up to suggest immigrants aren’t a net positive for Portland’s economy. Nobody denied that many immigrants and refugees face barriers — language, culture, transportation — that most third-, fourth- or fifth-generation Mainers don’t.

Nor did anyone dispute that it’s a waste of talent and earning potential to have immigrants who were doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers in their home countries stuck working entry-level jobs in Maine because of those barriers.

But opponents told the committee creating an Office of New Americans could nonetheless be a big slap in the face to a bunch of people: Community leaders already working with immigrants and refugees; underserved minorities who feel like they’re getting leapfrogged in the city’s priority list; and many immigrants themselves who bristled at the label “New Americans” and said the notion they couldn’t succeed here without special treatment is patronizing.

Christina Feller of the immigrant business incubator Living With Peace said the council is “coming late to the table.”

“By singling out a particular group of people to support … you’re creating greater divisiveness between communities in the city,” she said.

“I could change the name of ‘New Americans’ to ‘young adults between the ages of 18 and 34,’ who are also under-employed,” said the Rev. Kenneth Lewis. “I could change the name to ‘African Americans’ or ‘Latino Americans.’ … When you tag the name ‘New Americans,’ you’re making a statement. I think it’s the wrong statement. It promotes exclusivity, not inclusivity.”

Kwan Malwal, head of the South Sudanese Community Association of Maine, told the committee he came to the country in 2002 and couldn’t speak English, but he worked hard, took advantage of the opportunities he could find, and ultimately spent time serving in the U.S. Army.

“I’m surprised that the council would ask some guy from New York to come here and tell us how we can help immigrants. Why didn’t they ask me?” he said. “I’m not a New American. I’m just an American.”

Regina Phillips, director of the city’s already existing Office of Refugee Services, told the committee her 16-year-old department is in danger of being closed down due to city budget concerns. The office has multilingual staff, case managers and job networking services, and it collaborates with a range of other area nonprofits to ensure recent arrivals get the help they need to settle in Portland.

Phillips said she once tried to combine her office with another of the city’s already existing departments, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, to create a wider ranging department that helped all marginalized and underserved communities in Portland get ahead.

But that effort failed to gain traction, she suggested, and now that both offices are teetering on the brink of elimination, city councilors are talking about a new Office of New Americans.

“We already have that office,” she said.

The majority of those who spoke — including those who were in complete support of an Office of New Americans — said they didn’t want the new office to cannibalize funding for other at-risk populations, nor stoke tension between immigrant communities and others who have been here longer and feel they need just as much help getting on their feet.

So maybe the solution everyone can get behind would be the merging and expansion of the offices of Refugee Services and Multicultural Affairs.

But given the looming workforce imbalance and largely underutilized immigrant population, Mayor Ethan Strimling suggested Tuesday night “doing nothing” isn’t a good option.

“We do a lot of stuff and we do a lot of coordination, but we’re still seeing these very deep pockets of poverty,” he said.

Tuesday night’s hearing was the first step in what will likely be months of discussion about what Portland can do better.

Finally, I promised I’d include Dan Wallace’s remarks at the end of this post, and here they are:

Portland ONA Testimony – Dan Wallace PNAE

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

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