As proposed, new office would support and coordinate economic and civic integration of immigrants in Maine to bolster state’s workforce and economy
Westbrook, Maine – Joined by business owners, immigrant advocates, municipal leaders, lawmakers, and others, Governor Janet Mills today unveiled a plan to establish an Office of New Americans within Maine State Government.
With unemployment at record lows, and economic growth among the best in the nation, Maine faces a shortage of workers across regions, professions, and skill levels, especially in critical sectors such as health care, education, and construction. Improving how Maine introduces and integrates New Americans into its communities and economy is viewed as one key strategy to addressing the state’s workforce needs, as attracting and retaining new workers is a priority for Maine’s economic future.
Under the plan (PDF), the Office of New Americans (ONA) would be charged with “making Maine a home of opportunity for all, by welcoming and supporting immigrants to strengthen Maine’s workforce, enhance the vibrancy of Maine’s communities, and build a strong and inclusive economy.” The plan calls for an office of four people and the creation of an 19-member advisory council to advise ONA on matters related to the long-term economic and civic integration of immigrants in Maine.
The plan also proposes that ONA focuses on strengthening English-language acquisition opportunities, building workforce pathways and support for entrepreneurs, improving coordination of organizations and entities that support immigrants, including communities, schools, and employers, engaging in federal immigration policies to benefit Maine, and improving Maine’s data about its immigrant populations.
These priorities reflect the input from the diverse array of stakeholders consulted to inform the ONA plan. Throughout the fall of 2023, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and Future (GOPIF) undertook an extensive stakeholder outreach effort to solicit input on the ONA plan, which included over 100 meetings with more than 800 individuals from every county in Maine representing municipalities, schools and colleges, employers, chambers of commerce, community-based organizations, and immigrant communities. The plan was delivered to Governor Mills consistent with her executive order from August 2023. Earlier this week, Representative Deqa Dhalac of South Portland introduced legislation on behalf of the Governor to create the Office of New Americans, consistent with the plan.
The Governor unveiled the plan at American Roots, a Westbrook-based textile manufacturer that has grown its business and workforce in partnership with the New American community in Maine. She was joined by Representative Dhalac, the sponsor of the legislation and an immigrant who fled violence in Somalia more than 30 years ago, and Senator Rick Bennett of Oxford, a cosponsor of the legislation, among others.
“Everywhere you look across Maine, there are help wanted signs. We need workers, and New Americans, who want to support themselves and their families, can be one important part of that solution. My Administration will do what we can to ensure that every person can contribute to our economy and successfully enter and stay in our workforce,” said Governor Janet Mills. “As we strengthen our economy by attracting talented people to work in Maine, may this Office help us fully harness the contributions of New Americans who have chosen to make our state their home.”
“By establishing this office, we are unlocking more economic potential for the entire state,” said Representative Deqa Dhalac. “Organizing these resources in one place will ensure that new immigrants to Maine have the support they need to become engaged and self-sufficient members of our communities, ultimately bolstering economic growth, innovation and entrepreneurship. Together, we can build a stronger, more inclusive Maine that thrives through the contributions of all its residents.”
“Establishing this office doesn’t have to do with whether you support the country’s current border policy or not. Rather it is about helping our communities, neighborhoods, and schools handle the unprecedented numbers of new immigrants making Maine their home. Our towns are struggling to deal with this change and cannot handle this influx alone. Ignoring the issue does not make it go away,” said Senator Rick Bennett. “The Office will help us understand who these new Mainers are so we can integrate and assimilate them into our communities, strengthen English language learning, and build pathways to much needed employment.”
“An Office of New Americans reflects Maine’s commitment to inclusivity and acknowledges the significant contributions immigrants bring to our communities. Resilient, talented and hardworking folks from across the world are making Maine their new home and we all stand to benefit,” said Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross. “By cultivating a welcoming environment and offering essential resources, this office will be instrumental in meeting this pivotal moment for our state.”
“American Roots was founded to create good union jobs and make high quality American made clothing in the state we love,”said Ben Waxman, CEO and Co-Founder of American Roots. “Because of the new Americans who have joined and built this company, American Roots is achieving its goal of contributing to our community in a significant way and proving that the American dream is possible.”
The Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information has reported that jobs in Maine reached all-time highs in the four consecutive months ending November 2023, a condition that has resulted in roughly two open jobs for each unemployed individual in Maine, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the long-term, the state’s 10-year Economic Development Strategy identified a need to add 75,000 individuals to Maine’s workforce by 2030.
Key stakeholders welcomed the unveiling of the plan and the legislation to create the Office of New Americans.
“This is a unifying moment for our immigrant community in Maine,” said Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition. “The proposed creation of the Office of New Americans signifies the state’s commitment to invest in the skills and experiences of immigrants.”
“As a leader of an immigrant non-profit that provides a wide range of services to immigrants in Maine, and as a city councilor in my community of Westbrook, an Office of New Americans within State government would be a dream come true,” said Claude Rwaganje, Executive Director of Prosperity Maine. “We are grateful to Governor Mills for hearing our voices through this process and putting this bipartisan legislation forward. We strongly support this initiative and look forward to working with state lawmakers to make it a reality.”
“I’m proud to see how far we’ve come over the last two decades, and the opening of the Office of New Americans shows the continued effort to build a diverse workforce to support Maine’s economic growth,” said Fatuma Hussein, Executive Director of Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. “This is a new day for Maine and as a community, we longed for this day to come.”
“Portland applauds the creation of this state-level office as it will provide critical coordination of our collective response to workforce opportunities presented by the successful assimilation of new Americans into our economy,” said Mark Dion, Mayor of the City of Portland. “The Office of New Americans reflects a cornerstone initiative, by the Governor, designed to advance state immigrant assimilation policies that will strengthen all of Maine. I also thank Governor Mills for her leadership and continued advocacy for vital and much needed changes to worker eligibility under current federal immigration policy.”
“The Maine State Chamber thanks Governor Mills for introducing the Office of New Americans legislation and welcomes her Administration’s plan to help New Americans integrate and succeed in Maine,” said Patrick Woodcock, President and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “The business community is working every day to integrate newly authorized workers into their workforce and the proposed Office of New Americans has the potential to assist these Maine companies with best practices and technical support. The Maine State Chamber has a long history of welcoming and supporting the success of New Americans who come to live and work in Maine, and the ONA will only enhance the business community’s efforts. New Americans continue to be critical to growing Maine’s competitiveness and improving our long-term demographic trajectory.”
“The Portland Regional Chamber has made integrating New Americans into our workforce and communities a cornerstone of all the work we do. That is why we are thrilled by the establishment of the Office of New Americans within the Maine State government,” said Quincy Hentzel, President and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. "This office will be instrumental in coordinating services for new Mainers and will help them access English language opportunities and identify workforce pathways. If we have a goal of aggressively expanding our workforce by 2030, we feel strongly there is no better way to do that than by harnessing the skills, experience, and education of foreign-born professionals who have chosen Maine to be their home. We extend our deepest gratitude to the Governor for spearheading this transformative effort to position Maine as a welcoming state for all.
“As a region with more than 20 years history of welcoming New Americans, and a thriving New American population representing dozens of countries, we are so excited with today’s announcement of the Office of New Americans,” said Shanna Cox, President and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "The future of our businesses and economy is dependent on in-migration and immigration helping our state meet our workforce needs, and the support from the State in helping increase English learning capacity, support the transfer of credentials, and more is vital to our future."
“The Office of New Americans will not only play a pivotal role in helping fill much needed jobs that are critical to the success of tourism, but will also create pathways for skill development, language support, and cultural integration within the tourism workforce,” said Tony Cameron, Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Tourism Association. “These values will support and help lay the groundwork for a resilient and sustainable tourism sector that can adapt to the evolving needs of our visitors.”
“An office at the state level to coordinate and expand this important work is greatly needed,” said Melissa Skahan, Vice President of Mission Integration at Northern Light Mercy Hospital. “We learned a great deal from our diverse employees about the barriers to training and education that prevented many from taking the next step in their careers. Once given access to the right tools, such as accelerated English language acquisition classes, lives were transformed through skill development and new career pathways that were once thought out of reach. Bringing work like this to scale will help lift up so many in our communities as well as promote more sustainable economic development.”
“AGC Maine’s mission to recruit and prepare the next generation of commercial contractors is essential to a strong economy, and while we’ve made great strides there is still significant work to meet future demand,” said Kelly Flagg, Executive Director of AGC Maine. This month we embarked on a new opportunity training New Americans who have an interest in construction, including some individuals with experience. Elevating career opportunities is essential, and many of the barriers we’ve identified are addressed in the Plan for the Office of New Americans."
“This is a smart move, and we’re looking forward to working closely with ONA at Maine’s community colleges to help our skilled students get connected to good-paying jobs in Maine,”said Maine Community College System President David Daigler. “This sort of collaboration will make it much easier for our New American students to have a clear, barrier-free pathway from education to employment.”
“Catholic Charities welcomes the Governor’s proposed creation of an Office of New Americans,” said Julie Allaire, Chief Program Officer at Catholic Charities Maine. “Our work with refugees and immigrants over the past 40-plus years has shown the tremendous impact they have in enriching the state both culturally and economically. New Americans are valued and dedicated employees, bring a diverse skill set and infuse our cities and towns with new vitality. This commitment to further promote their success will be returned many times over.”
“As an organization supporting migrant farmworkers and immigrants in predominantly rural communities for the last two decades, Mano en Mano welcomes the establishment of the Office of New Americans,” said Juana Rodriguez, Executive Director of Mano en Mano. “At Mano en Mano, we envision a stronger Maine, where everyone - no matter where they are from, what language they speak or what they have lived through - is welcomed and has the opportunity to thrive. The creation of the Office of New Americans represents a step towards creating a more inclusive Maine. Immigrants have helped make our state more vibrant for generations, and this office will help ensure that Maine is a place where newcomers can thrive in our workplaces and communities.”
With the establishment of an ONA, Maine becomes the 19th state in the country to join the Office of New Americans State Network, a consortium of U.S. states with dedicated offices or staff for coordinating immigrant integration. The Network is coordinated by a partnership of two organizations, World Education Services and the American Immigration Council.
Through the Network, the State will access expertise, experiences, and best practices from states across the country on developing policy approaches to support the successful economic, social, and civic integration of immigrants. In other states, Network offices are broadly charged with offering guidance and assistance to state agencies, with focus on economic areas such as workforce training, licensing, language access, and legal supports.
Maine is the 19th state in the Network, following the additions of North Dakota and Utah in 2023, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Illinois in 2022; and Colorado, Oregon, and Minnesota in 2021. Other Network states include Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, California, Washington, Nevada, and Virginia.
Given Federal constraints in immigration law, Governor Mills, in partnership with members of Maine’s Congressional Delegation, continues to call on the Federal government to expedite work authorization for individuals seeking asylum.
Last year, the Governor signed into law a bipartisan bill, LD 1050, A Resolve, Directing the Department of Labor to Request a Federal Waiver to Allow Presumptive Work Eligibility for Asylum Seekers. The Maine Department of Labor requested such a waiver on October 25, 2023.
The Governor also continues to strongly support the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2023, sponsored by Senators Collins and King and Representative Pingree, which would enable asylum seekers to receive work authorization on a much faster timetable. The U.S. Chamber of Congress has endorsed this legislation along with others to address challenges in the system.
To download the Office of New American Plan in English, or translations of the plan’s Executive Summary in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Somali, Lingala, or Arabic, please visit http://www.maine.gov/future/ona.