Yesterday's refugees, today's champions.

Source: Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Maine's Somalis Could Be Its Saviors

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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As goes Lewiston, so goes the country?

A tightly fought mayoral contest in Maine’s second-largest city (pop. 36,299) tapped into anxieties shared by many Americans in communities hosting refugees and asylum seekers: the threat of rising poverty and welfare dependence, more crime and ugly culture clashes. But if the once-declining mill town’s upward trajectory is any indication, perhaps the biggest thing they have to fear is fear itself. For the state with the country’s oldest, whitest and slowest-growing population, attracting new residents of various stripes isn't just a godsend but an economic imperative.

Last week, Democratic candidate Ben Chin beat Robert Macdonald, the Republican incumbent two-term mayor, but not by enough to avert a runoff. Although issues such as a proposed pay-per-bag trash fee reared up in the campaign, one of the biggest sources of contention was public assistance for asylum seekers from Africa, who continue to join a 4,000-plus community of Somalis and other Africans who have made Lewiston their home for more than a decade.

Macdonald has backed efforts to cut off public assistance to immigrants seeking asylum, and to publicly identify its recipients in order to make “people think twice about applying for welfare.” Earlier, he made headlines by urging immigrants to “accept our culture and leave your culture at the door.”

In a column for a local paper, he huffed that “submissive Somali women turn into obnoxious customers at the grocery store cash register.” Complaints about the treatment of Somalis, he said, came mostly from “boo-hoo white do-gooders and their carpetbagger friends.”

Chin, a Chinese-American who is the political director for the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, has campaigned for continued public assistance for asylum seekers; for his pains, a local landlord put up signs dubbing him “Ho Chi Chin” and urging people to “vote for more jobs and not more welfare.”

Lewiston’s Somalis first began showing up in 2001. Originally refugees who settled near Atlanta, many moved to Maine. In a 2011 survey, the most common reason they gave for the northward trek was to improve their quality of life -- not just affordable housing, but safety, good schools, and the increased social control that came with living in a smaller community. Maine’s relatively generous welfare system also played a part -- but other Somalis moved from states with more generous benefits.

When they arrived, they found a city back on its heels. Lewiston’s population had dropped by 10 percent in the 1990s, its downtown had never recovered from the closure of mills and the businesses they supported, and jobs were scarce. In a city with two of Maine's poorest census tracts, a swelling contingent of welfare-dependent non-English-speaking immigrants traumatized by war and violence didn’t exactly promise an economic miracle. Nonetheless, they brought new life to downtown -- new restaurants and shops, businesses, even a mosque. Many found jobs in and around Lewiston, and for those who didn’t, their welfare payments still helped the local economy.

More importantly, they grew and rejuvenated Lewiston’s population. That’s critical for Maine, a state whose demographics are a slow-motion economic disaster. As the Maine Department of Labor’s chief economist has noted, Maine’s unenviable status as the oldest state in the union has less to do with a lot of seniors than a lot of Baby Boomers who didn’t have many kids.

That affects everything from the labor force to school and university enrollments. (The University of Maine system, for instance, has been forced to gut itself as enrollments drop.) By one estimate, Maine has to attract at least 3,000 new residents annually for the next 20 years to sustain its workforce, in addition to keeping its existing youngsters from moving away.

Political Asylum

As a result of Lewiston’s African influx, since 2002 the number of kids in its schools has risen by 10 percent. If that’s a burden, it’s one that nearby communities might like to have: The school population for the rest of Androscoggin County has fallen by 15 percent.

At one level, Maine’s zany, Tea Party-steeped governor Paul LePage understands that his state needs more people to thrive. "We have more people in Maine dying than being born," he said last year.

But that was in remarks reiterating his opposition to abortion. His administration has sought to strip asylum seekers of general assistance, even though federal law prohibits them from working while their applications are pending. And he has regularly blamed "illegals" for everything from welfare fraud and crime to the spread of disease -- positions whose spirit Lewiston's current mayor has echoed.

The city's immigrant influx has doubtless imposed burdens on its social services. But as one of its state legislators noted, general assistance to asylum seekers accounts for less than 1 percent of the city's budget. Lewiston's director of economic and community development told the Boston Globe this summer that the unemployment rate among Somalis is only slightly higher than the state rate of 4.7 percent. And it boasts the lowest crime rate of Maine's cities.

What's real, abiding and understandable is the kind of culture shock that comes when an established, tight-knit community is deluged by newcomers. Lewiston's overwhelmingly white, Catholic, Franco-American inhabitants were themselves victims of ordinances banning French in local schools until only a few decades ago.

Injecting African Muslims into their midst is a huge challenge for both sides, especially in a state with so little diversity to begin with. As Maine's former attorney general James Tierney said in a speech at Lewiston's Bates College last year, "Maine elected leaders do not want to talk about race … I have lived here all my life and the truth is that we like things the way they are."

But he argued that until Maine's elected leaders and citizens start talking more about race and diversity, the state won't be able to "develop any real economic development strategy." Otherwise, it faces the worst of both worlds: expending resources to house and educate refugee newcomers, only to see the next generation leave in search of a more welcoming environment.

As one Somali college graduate leaving Maine for a big-city university in another state said, "It's exhausting … being Somali and living in Lewiston because it's not just limelight, it's kind of like a shining, beaming spotlight that goes with you wherever you go."

That challenge of integration and adjustment faces communities across the United States, whether Somalis, Guatemalans, or -- eventually, perhaps -- tens of thousands of Syrians. Meeting it will require not just more federal and state support, but greater understanding on all sides, from refugee organizations that take more time to consult with local stakeholders to officials who resist the political temptation to scapegoat new arrivals for old problems.

It's not clear how Lewiston's mayoral runoff is going to play out. But here's some good news: Lewiston’s polyglot high school soccer team, with players like Abdi Shariff-Hassan,  Maulid Abdow and Noralddin Othman, just won the State Soccer Finals. Go Blue Devils -- and don't leave Maine!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net