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Maine's Immigrants Boost Workforce Of Whitest, Oldest State In U.S.

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Maine's Immigrants Boost Workforce Of Whitest, Oldest State In U.S.

Maine's Immigrants Boost Workforce Of Whitest, Oldest State In U.S.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Maine is the whitest and oldest state in the U.S. It also has one of the country's lowest birthrates. Demographers say that adds up to a looming crisis for Maine. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has this story about one Maine community that is relying on newcomers to keep its economy alive.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Here in the eastern edges of the U.S. along the shores of Washington County, many make a living from the waters of Down East Maine.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Crew members of Lobster Trap dump a vat of salted herring on a dock of a glassy bay ringed by evergreens and a scattering of wood-shingled houses. They're filling pungent containers of lobster bait. Annie Sokoloski helps manage this facility, and she says working in seafood goes back generations in her family.

ANNIE SOKOLOSKI: My grandmother forced me to go into the fish factory and pack sardines. And she told me, anytime that I thought about not having an education, I needed to remember that day.

WANG: And she says she still remembers other lessons from growing up in rural Down East Maine.

SOKOLOSKI: They instilled into our generation you need to get away from here to make anything for yourself, you know, and I think to a certain degree I do it with my own daughter.

WANG: Sokoloski's 23-year-old daughter, Natasha Davis, was also raised in Washington County.

NATASHA DAVIS: There seems to be more job opportunity out of Maine.

WANG: You'd have to leave for that.

DAVIS: Yes, travel, go somewhere different.

WANG: Davis wants to be a veterinary technician and has California in her sights. It's young people like her that have been leaving Maine in droves since the 1980s. And local officials say they're worried about harder times ahead for Washington County, including Charles Rudelitch of the Sunrise County Economic Council. A recent Pew Research Center report projects that new immigrants will be the main drivers of growth in the U.S. workforce through 2035. Rudelitch says immigrants will also be key in sustaining Washington County's economy.

CHARLES RUDELITCH: We are making the argument that over time there will be a much bigger economy for all of us to have a share of if we welcome people who choose to move here.

WANG: Newcomers have been moving to the county, specifically to the small town of Milbridge, population just over 1,300. About 6 percent is Latino, many of them families drawn by jobs in lobster processing, blueberry picking and wreath making. Maria Paniagua Albor works in the office of a lobster processing plant.

MARIA PANIAGUA ALBOR: Most of us are either from Puerto Rico or Mexico.

WANG: Her father was one of the first workers from Mexico who puts their roots down in Milbridge. She says he worked seasonal jobs in the area for years before he decided to move his family after they received their green cards. Paniagua Albor is a U.S. citizen now. She lives in her own mobile home in Milbridge with her husband and 2-year-old son. Maine, she says, is just like what the welcome signs say along the highways here - the way life should be.

ALBOR: It really is. I mean, I don't want to be stuck in traffic like in New York (laughter). So I guess I like it. It's calm, and that's good to raise kids.

MANNY FLORES: I'm going to be the dragon.

VICTOR FLORES: Where's the other dragon? There's the other dragon in here.

WANG: Victor Flores is raising his 5-year-old son, Manny, and three daughters in Milbridge with his fiance. They met when he was working at a sea cucumber processing plant.

FLORES: At that place, she was the bookkeeper. That's how I met her.

WANG: Flores' fiance is white and has lived in the area for almost three decades. He was born in Mexico and moved here from Florida almost two decades ago. Flores says he's felt some of the backlash against newcomers in town, including once outside the local supermarket when he parked next to a white man's car.

FLORES: He thought I was too close to him, so he started getting mad. And the first thing he's like, go back to Mexico. Go back to where you came from. You don't belong here.

WANG: But at that point, you had been living here for more than a decade.

FLORES: Yes.

WANG: For Annie Sokoloski of Lobster Trap, though, newcomers have been a welcome addition to her town, especially at job fairs and other recruiting events.

SOKOLOSKI: We start at $11 an hour with a weekly bonus.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you work Sundays?

SOKOLOSKI: Seven days a week.

WANG: Still, Sokoloski says she's concerned about the future of Down East, Maine's, economy.

SOKOLOSKI: It's going to be more of a retirement-type area. There's nothing to really sustain a long-term growth of a younger generation.

WANG: And she's not sure how long she'll live here year-round once her daughter leaves. After retirement, Sokolowski says, she'll probably move away. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Milbridge, Maine.

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