Maine is in desperate need of New Mainers -- people “from away.” We should celebrate those who decide to call Maine home, not scorn them.

Seven years ago, I moved from Texas to Maine to build a career and life in Bangor. Although I knew very little of the state when I accepted the job at the University of Maine in Orono, I embraced my role in service to the state and quickly fell in love with Maine.

Over these past years, I’ve been able to build a network of local friends, invest in the community of Bangor and feel comfortably at home in this amazing state. I love Maine.

But each time I have worked to find a way to support my local communities, I have been reminded by someone that I am “not a Mainer,” that I am now and will forever be “from away.” Although they appreciate my role in the community, they remind me that I am, and always will be, an outsider.

I don’t think that being called “ from away” is malicious most of the time. But it does represent the barriers that new Mainers face when they work to invest in our state — barriers we must work to remove if we want Maine to grow and be successful.

Maine is in desperate need of New Mainers — people “from away.” Our statewide workforce is rapidly shrinking. In fact, because of our immigration trends, the working-age population is shrinking nearly twice as fast as the national average. As strained as our workforce is now, these trends predict a dangerous future. In 2017, we had only 3.2 working-age Mainers for each senior in the state. If these trends persist, we’ll have only 2.1 workers to every senior by 2032.

These trends create extreme pressures on tax revenue and shrink Maine’s already threatened school districts, while increasing demands on services, especially in rural areas. Indeed, the stagnation of Maine’s population has contributed to a stagnant state economy — Maine’s GDP expansion over the past decade was third to last nationwide.

As the Maine Development Foundation recognizes, “We will need an infusion of people … from beyond our borders to grow our working age population, and in turn help attract new businesses to thrive and grow.”

If Maine needs anything at all, it needs to actively and aggressively recruit New Mainers.

[Opinion:Aging America needs immigrants or will face higher taxes, more imports]

As a white, male, formally educated professional, I encountered the least possible resistance to investing in Maine as a local. Other new Mainers experience much higher hurdles. Beyond the challenges of potential language barriers and international credential transfers, new Mainers have faced overt racism in their communities and from school board officials and state lawmakers like Larry Lockman, or have been harassed by increased Customs and Border Protection activity across the state.

Nova Scotia has faced economic and demographic challenges similar to Maine’s in the past decade and represents what Maine could do if we focus our attention on welcoming those “from away.”

The province, and its capital Halifax in particular, has welcomed an influx of Syrian refugees and developed policies to identify immigrants with needed skills or experience to move them quickly through the immigration process. As a result, Nova Scotia has reversed its population trends by making immigration a key part of their economic growth strategy and is seeing large economic benefits.

Maine can do the same, and it begins by each of us working to change being “from away” from something to look down upon to something to celebrate. Structurally, we must work to identify ways we can support successful immigration, like the recent bipartisan work on LD 1492, which would have established an Office of New Mainers and helped build supports for immigrants if it had not been left to die on the “special appropriations” table in the Legislature. We must work to make new Mainers feel welcome in our communities and ensure our elected officials are working to support that welcome.

At the personal level, we can begin by changing what we mean when we tell someone that they’re “from away.” No longer should “from away” be said with suspicion and a a chuckling acknowledgement of one’s perpetual status as an outsider. Instead, it should be said in celebration. “You’re from away! Welcome! We hope you love being a Mainer!”

Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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