Maine Needs Migrants

Last November I attended Midcoast Magnet’s Juice 3.0 conference in Camden: a gathering of creative economy types, venture capital folks, community organizers, and entrepreneurs who spent two productive days networking, sharing ideas, and learning. I had the good fortune to be one of the judges in the pitch contest, where a total of $175,000 in investments and services were awarded to Maine companies pursuing the next big idea.

I could spend this entire column excitedly raving about the energy and intellectual ferment that the conference and pitch contest engendered, but instead I’m going to focus on a little-remarked element of the conference: the number of folks with foreign accents. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I wasn’t surprised that immigrants could be found all over at a gathering dedicated to bootstrapping, creative entrepreneurship.

Some of you who know me also know that I too am an immigrant. I moved to Maine from the UK in 1995 with (as my grandchildren will no doubt tire of hearing) two suitcases and $400 in cash. In the intervening 16 years I have worked my way up from seasonal retail clerk to head of the fourth largest Chamber of Commerce in Maine. I offer up my story not in a bragging way but rather to illustrate why I believe that I am a prime example of why legal immigration works. In my career I have generated jobs for American workers and wealth for American companies, all the while aspiring to the American Dream and- I hope- contributing to the collective well being of us all. I actively chose to be here and am grateful every day for being allowed the chance to build my life here. Would that we all felt that way!

There is a strong economic argument that the growth and prosperity of the United States is dependent on immigrants replenishing our workforce. America has begun to age rapidly as the leading edge of the baby boom generation started turning 65 this past year. We already see this in Maine, which is the oldest state by average age in the country. A key benefit of immigration is the contribution immigrants have made at the younger end of the age spectrum. This “younging” of the population will continue to help the economy grow by providing new workers, new home buyers, and new citizens as more Americans live longer.

With Maine’s particular demographic challenges I would argue that an embrace of legal immigration- America’s ‘X Factor’- is one of the most sensible things we can do as a state. After all, immigration is responsible for any one of us who isn’t a member of a Native American nation or tribe being here. That aspiration and drive that brought your family here (be it in 1607 or 2007) made Maine grow from a few scattered fishing stations to where we are today. We owe it to our future to encourage all comers to bring their version of that drive to the Pine Tree State.

The country that attracts the world’s best, brightest and hardest-working will lead the global economy. America has long been that country. The time has come for Maine to embrace this understanding, to actively encourage immigration (and sensible immigration reform), help renew our economy and keep the American Dream alive.

Learn more about the Chamber: www.penbaychamber.com