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Immigrants seen as vital part of Maine economic growth

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Immigrants seen as vital part of Maine economic growth

PORTLAND — After a Brown University study recently showed Maine is one of the most racially homogenous states in the nation, representatives of businesses, faith communities, and cultural organizations met last Saturday to discuss ways the state can attract skilled workers and entrepreneurial talent for economic growth, with particular emphasis on immigration.

Most of those present at the meeting Sept. 22 at the Wishcamper Center on the University of Southern Maine campus were members of the Maine Global Institute's advisory board and are connected to Maine's multicultural populations. 

"The greatest investment we can make is in human capital," Ralph Carmona, MGI executive director, said. He went on to state that educated immigrants would add value to the job market.

This was the first open planning session for the organization. Topics discussed were broad and included the concept of diversity as wealth, the inherent complexity of culture, avoiding internalization of negative rhetoric, and the need for open-mindedness in both the Maine-born and incoming immigrant populations. 

The Brown study categorized populations into five groups: non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, non-Hispanic asians and pacific islanders, hispanics of any race, and an "other" classification comprised of non-Hispanic Native Americans, members of other races and multi-racial persons.

While there was an absolute statistical change in Maine over a period of 30 years, according to the study, the pace of that change was much slower relative to the rest of the country, and slower than comparable metropolitan and rural areas.

Portland, Lewiston, and Bangor were ranked among the 25 least diverse cities in America.

Among the key findings of the study were factors correlated to diversity, including "large total and foreign-born populations; high rental occupancy, as a community needs a supply of rental housing to accommodate newcomers; a range of occupational options, including entry-level jobs; and a low minority-to-white income ratio."

MGI, which focuses on local, regional, state, and federal efforts in the public and private sectors to address all forms of domestic and foreign migration, hopes to work toward a Maine that is a more welcoming place for "inevitable demographic change." 

MGI's literature outlines immediate goals, including cultivating coalitions, developing a website, and establishing a Maine Immigrants Day.

Larry Gilbert, former mayor of Lewiston, is chairman of the board. Gilbert is also involved in the Lewiston-based Welcoming Maine, which works to integrate new Mainers into the city.  

The ethnic Somali and Somali Bantu communities in Lewiston were recently featured on the BBC. The video was shown at the meeting and garnered a range of responses, mostly due to the remarks of current Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald.

"If you want to come in here and you want to become a citizen, that's fine," MacDonald said in the video. "Welcome to America. But, when you come here you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door."

Roberto Noya, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the University of Maine at Farmington, dismissed MacDonald's comments as "extremist" and called for attendees to avoid prejudgement while seeking out moderates. 

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Dill attended the meeting briefly to introduce herself and engage the participants. Independent candidate Angus King and Republican Charlie Summers were invited, but did not appear.

Marena Blanchard can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or mblanchard@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @soapboxnoise.