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 Statemaster.com, 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.

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