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“I Have Hope”: In States Like Maine, Asylum-Seekers are Building New Lives, and Rebuilding a Shrinking Workforce

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When migrants are all too frequently framed as faceless numbers, it’s necessary to have a reminder that we are talking about human beings who have overcome grueling circumstances and oftentimes survived perilous journeys to reach the U.S. A new series from Maine’s Portland Press Herald is shining an important light on a growing number of asylum-seekers, many from Africa, who’ve fallen in love with the state and made it their new home. 

Among them is Aishat Ibrahim Jimoh, who along with her family fled Nigeria two years ago. The family was initially detained in Texas, where Jimoh said her children were confused over being detained. It wasn’t clear if they knew where to go if they were lucky enough to avoid deportation and get released. “But it was there that a pair of Congolese women told Jimoh about Portland, Maine,” the Portland Press Herald said in part two of its series. “Two years later, Portland is home to the 37-year-old, her husband and their three children.” The youngest child, Saffiyah, was born in the state and is the family’s first U.S. citizen.

Jimoh and her family had fled Nigeria over fear of persecution due to her husband’s involvement in politics, as well as the dangers that face children, “who can be targeted by ritualists who want to sell them or their body parts,” the Press Herald said. Jimoh said that she saw a positive change in her children right after arriving in Maine. “It had been a long time since Jimoh had seen her sons, now 8 and 6, as happy as they were in the grocery store,” the report said. “We want this! We want this!’” she said they said. 

Maine has welcomed thousands of African migrants in the past several years, including from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo. Many have said they’ve heard about the state through word of mouth. Many of those aiding newer arrivals are themselves immigrants, like Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) Executive Director Mufalo Chitam. While the Bangor Daily News reported in 2019 that MIRC welcomed new arrivals with sandwiches, the organization also ensured that local immigrants prepared familiar, comforting dishes.

“It’s a safe place, and it’s a place where a lot of them have family members or where they know of other people who have come and stayed or passed through,” Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services, told the Press Herald. “Everything I have heard, either from the southern border or from asylum seekers themselves, really is about it being safe.” 

While the human stories are no doubt important, let’s not forget how states also benefit from immigrants, and Maine is no exception. “As more people leave the state’s workforce than enter it, new Mainers may play a vital role in filling the gaps,” the Press Herald reported last year. The outlet reported at the time that roughly 20,000 laborers had left the workforce due to the pandemic, and stands to lose another 65,000 workers to retirement by 2029. 

It’s migrants who can help fill these positions, like at the Wild Oats Bakery in Brunswick, where a group of asylum-seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola help produce delicious goods daily. At Luke’s Lobster’s processing facility in Saco, cofounder Ben Conniff estimates that 80% of his employees are immigrants.

“The guys we work with, every single day they’re going to classes, they’re learning,” he said in the report. “They want to be involved.”

“Immigrants’ share of the U.S. labor force grows to a new high,” The Wall Street Journal reported just this week. “People born outside the U.S. made up 18.1% of the overall labor force, up from 17.4% the prior year and the highest level in data back to 1996, the Labor Department said in its annual report on foreign-born workers.” In fact, “[m]ore foreign-born people joined the labor force than native-born Americans, accounting for more than half of the 3.1 million overall gain last year, the report said.”

Conniff told the Press Herald that it’s immigrants who’ve kept the lobster business alive. “Even if there were enough native-born Mainers in the workforce to fill the jobs – and there aren’t, he said – they’re not applying for them.” This is something we’re heard in the agricultural industry too. Sometimes derided as “low-skilled” labor, this is arduous and expert work. Just take a look at the one example from United Farm Workers.

While certain lawmakers in other states are driving immigrant workers out of their jobs and homes through hateful legislation, we would be smart to take up commonsense bills like the one proposed by Democratic Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, which would speed up the work authorization process for asylum-seekers who are waiting for their cases to play out. “They deserve the right to be self-sufficient and become part of their new communities,” she tweeted.


“Jimoh recently completed the bank teller training program at Portland Adult Education,” according to the  Press Herald. “Her husband was working for Abbott Laboratories until he was laid off last winter, and he recently started a new job at Lowe’s.” Like so many other families, they want to build a life here and keep contributing. We should embrace them with open arms. “Maine put a lot of things into me, so I have to pay it back and put a lot of things in to make it more developed than it was before,” she said in the report. “I have hope, and I think it will work.” Part one of the series is available here.