Rural communities faced with declining populations and stagnant economies are increasingly looking to immigrants to ease this decline. Small, declining towns in Canada have an option that Maine’s dwindling rural towns don’t have: to invite in legal refugees.
Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program allows residents to band together to bring refugee families to their specific area. The program has the dual effect of giving a safe home to families in need but also helping revitalize areas that would otherwise only see out-migration. In the United States, the federal government makes refugee resettlement decisions.
This year, it looked as though a similar program would be piloted in the United States, potentially paving the way for small Maine communities to invite and receive refugees directly to their area, if they wished. The election of Donald Trump, who as a candidate said he would, at least temporarily, stop refugees, especially Syrians, from coming to the U.S., leaves the future of such a program uncertain.
A private sponsorship program in the U.S. could directly help small communities in Maine stem their population loss, which has been acute. Between 1999 and 2015, Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Washington counties together lost 20.67 percent of their prime working-age people, considered ages 25 to 54. The remaining counties lost 8.6 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
With fewer working-age people, employers are struggling to fill jobs. As more baby boomers retire, the challenge for employers is only likely to increase.
“The only way we’re going to be able to turn the problem around is through in-migration,” Steve Farnham, executive director of the Aroostook Agency on Aging, told the BDN for an article that’s part of a recent Maine Focus project on the future of Maine’s rural places. “Canada figured that one out.”
Few Americans have wanted to move to places such as Aroostook County, where the remote location and wages that are below the national average make it a tough sell. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly 3,000 more people left The County than moved in, according to U.S. Census data.
But for refugees who lack safety and opportunity in their home countries, Maine’s small towns could be an attractive place to resettle. Maine’s rural areas were, after all, built largely by immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Maine’s congressional leaders should push for the private refugee resettlement pilot program to be saved as a way to give small Maine communities that want newcomers a concrete way to bring them in.
In the meantime, northern communities wanting new people are left with trying to invite refugees or immigrants who have already settled in southern Maine to move north, with no guarantees their efforts will work. This is the approach Tim Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College, is taking with a group of nine others. In the coming months, they plan to go to Lewiston and invite refugees there to visit and potentially move to Presque Isle or Caribou.
Some people may have legitimate concerns that newcomers would change their town’s identity for the worse. But they might be glad to know that since the border town of Perth-Andover, Canada, population 1,778, welcomed a Syrian refugee family this July, there have been no complaints or issues, according to Michael Fredericks, the pastor who spearheaded the effort to bring the family.
“It’s harder to hate people once you meet them,” Fredericks said. It’s especially hard when those people are doing jobs no one else will do, paying taxes into a beleaguered small town’s budget and putting kids into a school that otherwise might have to close.