Mauwa Muyenga (far right) and Safi Paulo (second from right) watch as Jordan Shabani (far left) learns how to use a piece of nursing home safety equipment designed to help a fallen resident safely into a nearby chair from coworker Katherine Page and Resident Care Director Tara Sabins (being lifted) at the Crawford Commons nursing home in Union. Credit: Micky Bedell

Maine’s population inched up between 2016 and 2017, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. But Aroostook County highlights a persistent trend in Maine’s demographic changes and an existential challenge for the state.

The crown of Maine lost more than 3,000 residents between 2010 and 2017, according to census figures. It’s as if Aroostook County’s 24 smallest communities vanished in that period.

The population decline of Aroostook County corresponds with the aging of the state with the country’s highest median age. And it corresponds with the state becoming more lopsided geographically, with people continuing to concentrate in southern Maine and along the coast.

Still, even as Aroostook County lost thousands of residents, it had one population trend in common with Maine’s 15 other counties: a net gain in migrants from outside the U.S. who now call Aroostook County home.

Between 2010 and 2017, 211 more people from outside the U.S. arrived in Aroostook County than left the county. In that time period, every other Maine county had a positive international in-migration trend.

Piscataquis County gained eight international migrants; Franklin County gained 138. Cumberland County welcomed, on net, 5,265 international migrants while Androscoggin County welcomed 985.

The numbers aren’t large. But they’re positive in every county, which points to a distinct reality: If Maine stands a chance of growing its population, that growth will depend on welcoming those from abroad to settle in Maine.

The reality should crystallize some policy choices for the state.

Some 28 percent of Maine’s foreign-born spoke English less than “very well,” according to census estimates covering 2012 through 2016. Many live in poverty — 21 percent of foreign-born residents compared with 13.2 percent of native-born Mainers.

And still, their participation in Maine’s workforce was just about as high as the native-born population’s — a 60 percent labor force participation rate, compared with 63 percent for Maine residents born in the United States. Many more of the foreign-born work service-sector jobs.

It suggests Maine should be making targeted investments to help its foreign-born population by, for example, strengthening the state’s adult education system to make English language classes more accessible. The student debt relief proposal on which Gov. Paul LePage is collaborating with Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford deserves the Legislature’s serious consideration, as a tool that could potentially keep a broader array of recent graduates — including a number from overseas —0 in Maine. And it means that Republican lawmakers need to stop their relentless efforts to further limit or eliminate the small amounts of publicly funded benefits for which immigrants are eligible. (Certainly, President Donald Trump’s moves to ramp up deportations, welcome fewer refugees and limit immigration act as a headwind to these needed efforts.)

The latest round of population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau don’t show that Maine is a population growth powerhouse by any means. But if every single county, including those that have lost population in recent years, share a positive trend of welcome more immigrants than have left, it’s a sign that Maine needs to focus on welcoming the foreign-born into the Mainer fold.

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