Infographic: New Americans in Maine

Check out this fact-packed infographic produced by the Immigration Policy Center about the foreign-born population in Maine. My favorite stats:

  • 3.4% of Mainers are foreign born
  • 56.6% of immigrants in the state are eligible to vote
  • Immigrants are 2.8% of the state’s workforce
  • 83.1% of children with immigrant parents are proficient in English

Immigration Policy Center Infographic

Source: “The Political and Economic Power of Immigrants, Latinos, and Asians in the Pine Tree State.” Immigration Policy Center

BBC News Magazine: African migrants who call America’s whitest state home

This video focuses on the influx of Somali immigrants and refugees into the town of Lewiston, Maine, where over 6,000 Somali and Somali Bantus that have settled since 2001.

With a state population of just over 1.2 million, these numbers have wide-reaching consequences. Although this video focuses on the town of Lewiston, the state’s largest city, Portland, has been experiencing an increase in its immigrant population as well. Today, over 1,000 immigrants from central Africa live Portland.

Click through to watch the BBC produced video.

Click through to watch the BBC produced video.

This BBC video demonstrates the challenges that both African immigrants and residents themselves face in the country’s “whitest state.”

English Language Learners in Portland Suburbs

The Portland Press Herald yesterday published an article about the influx of immigrants to Portland’s suburbs.

Photo Credit: Portland Press Herald

Photo Credit: Portland Press Herald

The suburb of Westbrook, in particular, has been changing due to the growing population of immigrants. Among the changes to the town of 18,000 are a new ethnic market, new ESL classes, and school menu items designed to accomodate Muslim students. In 2005, Westbrook’s English-language-learners program had 27 students; this year there are 265.

“Portland has long been a place where immigrants have resettled, but in recent years a rising numbers of new Americans have made their homes in its suburbs.” -Leslie Bridgers, Portland Press

ELL enrollment in Portland's suburbs. Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald

ELL enrollment in Portland’s suburbs. Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald

The trend of immigrants moving to Maine’s suburbs manifests itself in the increase in English language learning students in these areas. The majority of immigrants learning English have the goal of landing a job. Much like the New American Center I’ve been reporting from in Lynn, Mass., students disappear once they’ve landed a job.

Read Bridger’s article in the Portland Press Herald here, or follow her on Twitter at @lesliebridgers.

The Boston Globe: Investigating the Death of Irene Bamenga

Maria Sacchetti of the Boston Globe has pointed me in the direction of The Globe’s December 2012 series “Justice in the Shadows,” a critical look at the U.S. immigration system and the flaws in immigration law enforcement.

Part Two of the series, “Out of sight, detainees struggle to be heard,” revolves around the story of Irene Bamenga, an illegal immigrant from France who died in a border detention center because officials neglected the woman’s requests for access to medication for her heart condition.

The Globe uses Bamenga’s story to illustrate malpractices in detention centers around the country, where thousands of immigrants are held for days or weeks. The video focuses on the grief felt by Bamenga’s husband, Congolese immigrant and Lynn resident Yodi Zikianda.

Congolese immigrant Yodi Zikianda of Lynn remembers his late wife, Irene Bamenga.

Congolese immigrant Yodi Zikianda of Lynn remembers his late wife, Irene Bamenga.

The series is worth a read, as it exposes major inadequacies of the system while recognizing the administrative and political complexities of the current system. The series also includes multimedia components such as interactive graphics, documents, videos and a timeline.

Portland, Maine: Impact of the 13 Percent

My last blog post pointed out the huge difference between the foreign-born population in Portland, Maine and the rest of the state. This 2010 story from WLBZ News drives this point home. According to this report, Portland “has become so diverse that 23 percent of its overall school population is now learning English as a second or even third language.”

“When Principal Mike McCarthy got to King Middle School 23 years ago, just 3 percent of the population was foreign born,” the article reads. “Now it’s climbed to 30 percent and growing all the time.”

Read the article in its entirety and click on the image below to watch a short video produced on the school.

Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources - WLBZ News

Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources – WLBZ News

Managing Expectations

The other day I asked Viviane Kamba, program manager at the Congolese Development Center, what – apart from language – was the biggest challenge for refugees and asylum seekers she sees.

“The American dream,” she told me simply. “Their expectations of the American dream.”

When refugees and asylum-seekers arrive in Massachusetts, they are put in housing that is often difficult, whether it be with no heat, difficult roommates, or an unfeasible rent. They are told to expect almost immediate employment.

Photo credit: Flickr / ladybugbkt

Photo credit: Flickr / ladybugbkt

“They come with big expectations. And when they arrive, it’s just… not what they were thinking,” said Kamba.

There is a lot of handle, upon first arriving. They have to deal with benefits that didn’t go through, transportation hurdles, and overwhelming culture differences.

“The first thing we do, we sit down with them and just to help them set up realistic goals,” said Kamba.

It is a heartbreaking idea, that of having to manage ones expectations of the American dream. But it is a challenge that Viviane Kamba has to manage on a daily basis.

The Work of the Congolese Development Center

This week I visited the Congolese Development Center in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Center occupies two offices on the fourth floor of 20 Wheeler Street, a floor buzzing with action, emotion, confusion.

The Center is one of seven partner agencies of the New American Center (NAC),
It joins the Bosnian Community Center for Resource Development, the Haitian-American Public Health Initiative, the Jewish Family & Children Services, the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center, the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts, and the Southern Sudanese Solidarity Organization on the busy floor. All seven agencies help run English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, literacy classes, job preparation help, and one-on-one support with new Americans and their families.

Viviane Kamba is the program manager at the Center. A Congolese immigrant herself, Kamba came to the United States a decade ago with her family. In 2006, Kamba and her husband, Eric, were approached by the New American Center. NAC needed an agency for the French-speaking African community, Kamba explained. The Center was founded with Viviane and her husband at the helm, with one medical volunteer and two case managers. Everyone was part time.

Despite the Congolese Development Center’s name, Kamba works with refugees and asylum-seekers from all French-speaking countries in Africa: Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Cameroon, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.

The Congolese Development Center, a nonprofit, helps refugee and asylum seekers from the period when the resettlement assistance ends until five years later. The Center’s intended role is to help the refugee and asylum seekers transition to normal life after their eight months of assistance from the resettlement agency, but Kamba says that her organization is usually forced to step in before the eight months are up.

“Each of them may have a different way of adjusting,” says Kamba, recognizing that some need more guidance than others. Some resettlement agencies say they cannot work with the new arrivals for the full eight months, due to a shortage of staff or lack of communication.

The Center only works with refugee status or asylum seekers, although immigrants occasionally qualify for support from Kamba and her coworkers. Kamba liaises with schools, city hall, and other local community agencies to advocate on behalf of her clients. “Most of the local agencies when they deal with an immigrant situation they usually call us and request our help,” she tells me.

In addition to these services, the Center offers a Gardening Project, where residents can garden in an assigned plot. The Center works with The Food Project to train participants in correct gardening techniques, and provides them with the land and the seeds for growing. The participants also take part in a cooking lesson and a field trip to a local grocery store where leaders demonstrate how to shop and stay healthy. In 2010, funding for Gardening Project ran out, but the program has continued despite the lack of money. This year, the Congolese Development Center is managing 12 plots.

This year, Kamba’s workload has increased. There are more refugees coming to Lynn, and Catholic Charities recently closed down its Lynn office. “All those who were served over there, they didn’t refer them anywhere. So they spontaneously came here,” Kamba says. “So that’s why the classes are a little bit overcrowded.”

Kamba says she works 20 hours a week, but is constantly on the phone or on her way to visit a client. She estimates that she is currently working with about 10 families. Her focus is on the medical aspects of her client’s life, making sure they have a primary care physician, assisting them in getting to their doctor on time and helping them understand their medical bills.

My discussion with Kamba exposed a lot of inadequacies – mostly due to lack of funding – in the resettlement process. The eight-month resettlement period, where a federally-funded agency such as the International Institute or Catholic Charities guides a newly-arrived immigrant, refugee or asylum-seeker through the process of establishing a life in America, ideally secures both housing and employment for the new American. “They’re supposed to have a place to stay. To be in a job search class… That is what resettlement is supposed to do. But unfortunately, it’s not done,” Kamba says.

About half of Kamba’s clients come to her from a resettlement agency with both a job and housing secured. But many times even the housing the agencies place the refugees in is unsustainable. Kamba says that often the resettlement agencies will place a refugee in an apartment with a rent of $1,000 or even $1,2000. The $1,200 rent is not something a refugee on a $400 monthly cash assistance program can afford, Kamba says.

And oftentimes, by the time the refugee is kicked out of the apartment for failing to pay rent, they are out of the resettlement agency’s hands.

Kamba and her colleagues at the New American Center face a daily battle against physical, financial, and emotional capacities. I will be returning to the Congolese Development Center in the coming weeks to learn more about Kamba’s work and the people that spent their lives helping these new Americans.

Asylum Applicants in Portland, Maine: An Update

In the process of the research for my last article on the Congolese diaspora in Maine, I came across an October 2011 Portland Press Herald article about the overwhelming demand for asylum assistance.

The article described the incredible spike in demand for assistance for asylum applicants in Maine: in one year from 2009 to 2010, applications for asylum assistance increased from 100 cases to approximately 400. The majority of these cases, the piece read, were from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The paper did not give a conclusive reason for the rise in asylum seekers in Maine, but did contrast this upward trend to the national average, where asylum applications fell a staggering 16 percent from 2006 to 2011. Another differing factor was the success of asylum assistance seekers being helped by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Maine’s sole provider of immigration legal aid to low-income residents. According to a study from Syracuse University, the success rate of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project was 97 percent, compared with the 54 percent national average of asylum seekers with lawyers.

The article mentioned that the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland was forced to stop accepting new cases in March of 2010 because of this overwhelming demand, but didn’t provide any hints towards the situation at the time of the Press Herald’s publication. I wrote to Noël Young, an asylum coordinator attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to ask for an update.

The article says that the demand for asylum assistance increased from 100 cases to about 400 between 2009 and 2010. What is the demand like today?
Young: Same. I don’t have hard numbers for you but the demand has no subsided – but I don’t think it’s increased either. We are slightly better able to deal with it, due to the creation of my position (see below), but we still have to turn people away.

The article also says that you had to stop accepting cases in March 2010 – have you begun again accepting new cases? If so, how many new cases do you take?
Yes – we began again in December 2011, although we certainly cannot take all / meet demand. My position was created and I was hired in June 2011 to deal with the increased demand and by December 2011 we had ‘reopened.’

The article stated that the majority of asylum seekers in Portland were from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, DRC, and Somalia. Is this still the case, or are you seeing any new trends?
All is still the same, with the only addition being Angola.

Young also clarified about the migration patterns for Congolese to Maine; the first wave of Congolese that came to Portland were resettled refugees, whereas the current “explosion” in population are from asylum-seekers.

The Congolese Diaspora in Maine

From the stories pouring out of Maine, from the influx of Somalis in Lewiston to the high demand for asylum assistance in Portland, I was under the impression that Maine’s cheap housing and low crime rates were attracting a large percentage of immigrants.

Over 4,000 new immigrants have moved to Lewiston since 2001, read a Newsweek article from January 2009. At the time the article was posted in 2009, almost 1,000 students were enrolled in ESL classes at Lewiston’s adult education center. An April 2012 article from the Portland Press Herald stated that in 2010, fully 13 percent of Portland’s population was foreign born.

But upon closer investigation, I realized that Maine was trailing – big time – with their immigration numbers. What many have referred to as “America’s whitest state” isn’t technically true, but it’s close.

The state capitol building in Augusta, Maine

The state capitol building in Augusta, Maine

According to the Immigration Policy Center, 3.4 percent of Maine’s 1.27 million residents are foreign born. This population, estimated at 42,747 in 2011 by the Migration Policy Institute, ranks Maine 45th out of the total 51 in the country (MPI counts the 50 states plus the District of Columbia).

Despite the news headlines generated by the massive influx of Somalis in Lewiston and the growing diversity of Portland, the increase in the foreign-born population between the years 2000 and 2011 was one of the lowest in the country as well, ranking 47th out of 51.

As a percentage, the foreign-born population in Maine has changed 16.5 percent between 2000 and 2011, from 36,691 to 42,747. While this is a big jump from the previous decade in Maine (from 1990 to 2000, the foreign-born population changed only 1.1 percent), it is still much lower than the national percentage, which from 2000 to 2011 changed 29.8 percent (from 31.1 million to 40.3 million).

The jump from 1.1 percent to 16.5 percent, however, is the largest jump in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, only five states (Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Maine) experienced an increase in immigrant population growth from the decade earlier, and Maine’s increase was by far the largest.

Another interesting discrepancy was the immigrant populations of Portland and Lewiston compared to the rest of the state. With a total foreign-born state population of 42,747, and the 13 percent foreign-born in Portland (a total of 8,633), approximately 34,000 immigrants are left for the remainder of the state. Furthermore, if you take out the estimated 5,000 Somali and Bantu population of Lewiston, only 29,000 remain over the remainder of the state. With a population of 1.2 million (the total state population minus the populations of Portland and Lewiston), you’re looking at an immigrant population that comprises roughly 2.4 percent of the total population. The drastic difference between Portland’s immigrant population (at 13 percent) and the immigrant population of the rest of the state (2.4 percent), you can see how different the immigrant experience could be depending on the person’s geographic location.

The population of illegal immigrants is small in Maine. According to an estimate in 2007 by The Federation for American Immigration Reform, only about 0.3 percent of Maine’s overall population were in the U.S. illegally.

Maine is known as "The Vacation State."

Maine is known as “The Vacation State.”

The majority of immigrants in Maine are either Asian or Latino. The Immigration Policy Center’s website states that the Latino share of Maine’s population grew from 0.7 percent of the total state population in 2000 to 1.3 percent in 2010; the Asian share of the population grew from 0.7 percent to 1.0 percent over the same time period.

Despite the large share of Asian and Latino immigrants, 11.5 percent of the foreign born population in Maine are from Africa. This percentage is much higher than the national percentage, in which only 4.1 percent of the total immigrant population in the U.S. is African.

Although it is hard to pin down the specific number of Congolese immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are a number of statistics that hint toward an estimate.

According to the 2000 census, there were 3,885 Congolese Americans who were born in the DRC. Although the 2010 census has not come up with a specific number for foreign born from the DRC, the American Community Survey estimated that in 2010 a total of 11,000 Congolese Americans resided in the country. Fronteras reporting adds to this number, stating that an additional 3,000 immigrants came to the U.S. from the DRC in the year 2010.

Between the years of 2000 and 2004, according to, there were only 64 refugees to settle in New England from the DRC, and of those 64, 11 settled in Maine.

Although I couldn’t find any other statistics about the Congolese Diaspora in the state of Maine, there are anecdotes I’ve come across that paint a rough picture of the population. In a 2012 article from the Portland Press Herald, Congolese immigrant E’nkul Kanakan is quoted as saying there were only five other families from the DRC when he arrived in Portland in 1996, and today there are between 150 and 200 families of Congolese origin in the city.

In the coming weeks I hope to travel to Maine to report on more stories about the Congolese immigrant and refugee experience in the state. I would love to tell stories about life as a Congolese American in Portland as well as life as a Congolese American in other towns and cities throughout the state. If you live in Maine and want to contact me please send me an email or Tweet.

Boston Globe Questions Program to Track Illegal Immigrants

Screen shot from The Boston Globe

An article in The Boston Globe today caught my eye. Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti raises questions about an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program to track illegal immigrants in Massachusetts.

According to the article, private company BI Incorporated has been tasked by Homeland Security to monitor immigrants facing deportation with methods that include GPS devices connected by ankle monitors.

These methods have been implemented as a more humane and less expensive alternative to detaining immigrants slated for deportation.

Sacchetti states that 29 percent of the 21,000 immigrants in the BI program wear GPS monitors, where in Massachusetts fewer than 3 percent of convicted criminals on probation and 5 percent of parolees wear monitors.

I’m very interested to know if any Congolese immigrants are a part of this program. If you know of any information please contact me.