The Frenchmen who settled on St. Croix Island in 1604 were unprepared for the winter ahead of them.

Nearly half of the 79 expedition members died in the harsh cold at what is now the Maine border with Canada. The rest survived and continued to explore North America. So began a process that would bring a nation together and tear it apart.

Immigrating to America has become increasingly complicated since those Frenchmen set sail more than 400 years ago. There is now a legal labyrinth of laws, security checks and pathways for people who come to the United States. But the motivations that bring immigrants to a new country are often the same. So are the concerns of the people who do not want them here.

The Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald is telling the stories of 12 people who each followed a different one of those pathways. They include a refugee who escaped violence and an undocumented teenager who dreams of being a nurse, a migrant apple picker and an international student hoping to go to an Ivy League college.

Their journeys reveal a vast and complex immigration system. And their stories show the diversity of the people behind the great American debate.

They are not the first to come from away, and they won’t be the last.


The early 17th century, when the French settlers sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay, also brought ships filled with English, who established settlements along the coast to trade in fish and fur. The Europeans who arrived in the 1600s and 1700s clashed with the native people and brought unfamiliar diseases to their tribes.

In the 1800s, Ireland was on the brink of the potato famine, and the lumber industry in Bangor was booming. So the Irish rode steamships to America and built railroads to Canada. They were loggers and river drivers and construction workers.

In Montreal, Canada, families watched the growth of the textile mills to the south. Even modestly paying jobs in Maine’s budding cities were attractive to people who had lived in rural poverty. Men, women and children flowed to Maine to weave fabric and make shoes.

The late 1800s and the 1900s brought Scandinavian farmers who felt at home in northern Maine’s climate. The Italian immigrants who joined them worked in the paper mills and on the docks along Portland’s waterfront. Jewish people fled to Maine to escape discrimination and persecution in Eastern Europe, and Congress enacted the first refugee legislation in 1948 to accommodate Europeans displaced by World War II. Waterville became a hub for Syrian-Lebanese immigrants. A group of Albanians in Biddeford built one of the first mosques in America and worked in the mills. Political unrest brought refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos as well.

Since 2000, Maine has become home to refugees of violent conflict and persecution in Africa and the Middle East.

No matter the country of origin, the reasons are generally the same: prosperity, safety and freedom.


“From the 17th century to the present, why do people come?” state historian Earle Shettleworth said. “They come for a number of reasons, but they are motivated to come here because they believe that this is a place of fairness and opportunity.”


Each wave of immigrants has met resistance and regulation.

Immigrant students gather in an Americanization class at the Boys Club in Portland about 1916. Americanization became the policy of state and federal governments during this period, when waves of immigrants arrived from southern and eastern Europe.

When the Irish arrived, Protestant Americans balked at the newcomers’ Catholic faith and worried they would lose their jobs to immigrants. During the summer of 1854, members of a political group called the Know Nothing Party burned a church used by Irish Catholics in Bath and attacked a priest in Ellsworth. But many Irishmen fought in the Civil War, and their service contributed in part to a softening of the anti-Irish sentiment in the country at that time.

“After the Civil War, you begin to find the Irish moving up on the social scale,” Shettleworth said. “Then there always has to be someone at the bottom of the scale in terms of the immigration patterns of Maine and America. The next big group to come in to provide large amounts of cheap labor are the Franco-Americans.”

Immigration became federally regulated after the Civil War as the influx of people increased. The first significant law restricting immigration to the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers. Other measures introduced inspections and medical exams at the point of departure for immigrants coming to the United States. Still, millions of immigrants entered the United States in the late 1880s and early 1890s.


The violence of World War I, however, caused many Americans to turn away from international engagement in the 1920s. In Maine, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan targeted Jews, Catholics, Chinese immigrants and African-Americans. New laws put numerical caps on visas for the first time. The U.S. Border Patrol was created to quell illegal border crossings.

“Those immigration laws began for the first time to seriously restrict immigration to America,” Shettleworth said. “That’s the beginning of what we’ve been dealing with now for the last 100 years or so. It all has its seeds in that period.”

World War II brought more aggressive security screenings for immigrants, as well as internment camps for Japanese-Americans. But the war also displaced hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The United States began to formally accept refugees, creating the foundation for the resettlement program that exists today.

The 1960s brought new restrictions on family-based and employment-based visas. In the 1980s, Congress authorized a program to give legal permanent residency to millions of undocumented people. More recently, concerns over illegal border crossings and terrorism have been the primary drivers of immigration policy.

“These patterns repeat themselves and continue,” said Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society.



Public opinion on immigration policy has become more divided in the last two decades.

In 1993, a Gallup poll showed 65 percent of people believed the level of immigration to the United States should be decreased. Only 6 percent of people responded that immigration should be increased, and 27 percent said immigration should remain at the existing level.

In 2017, the same poll showed 35 percent of people wanted to reduce the level of immigration to the United States. Twenty-four percent of people said immigration should be increased, and 38 percent thought the level of immigration should remain constant.

Gallup also found 28 percent of the people surveyed this year thought immigrants had a negative effect on job opportunities for them and their family, while 20 percent thought they had a positive effect. Fifty-one percent said immigrants have no effect on their job opportunities.

Bob Casimiro is one of the people who believes immigration should be more limited.

Casimiro, who lives in Bridgton and began studying immigration policy after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, recently formed Mainers for Responsible Immigration. The group has seven board members and an email list of 30 names, but Casimiro said he hopes to eventually expand its presence online and to host speaker events.


The top priority, Casimiro said, should be greater border security to prevent illegal crossings. He also wants more employers to check the immigration status of job candidates and crack down on what he says are abuses of the system, such as when a person overstays a temporary visa.

More than 4 million people are on waiting lists for visas that would allow them to come to the United States, according to the U.S. State Department, and Casimiro said reducing those backlogs should be a priority over protecting undocumented people.

“It’s a leaky boat,” Casimiro said. “If you have a leaky boat, you have to fix the leak. What we’re doing now is bailing, trying to keep up with it. This includes not just the border, but the visa overstays.”

While eliminating illegal immigration is his primary interest, Casimiro is also a supporter of federal legislation to dramatically reduce the number of green cards awarded each year and establish a “merit-based” immigration system that would put a greater emphasis on the job skills of foreigners over their family ties in the United States. Casimiro argues that immigrants should be people who will add to the economy with their education and job experience, instead of adding to the costs for public schools and General Assistance.

“I look at it helping the average Mainer and the average American,” he said.

To Tae Chong, however, immigrants do help the average person.


Chong, who moved from South Korea to Maine as a young boy, now works as a business adviser at Coastal Enterprises Inc., and helps immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Immigrants are the answer to a workforce shortage in Maine, he said.

“You’re seeing a crisis unfold right now where high skilled baby boomers are retiring, and there’s not enough people to backfill them,” he said. “We need 70,000 people to fill in for the baby boomers who are retiring.”

Chong said Maine’s aging population, low birth rate and low unemployment rate means an influx of young people is necessary to maintain the state’s economy. And the majority of immigrants who arrive in Maine are young and have some level of higher education, he said. A 2016 report from the Maine Development Foundation and state Chamber of Commerce similarly said the economy will suffer if Maine fails to attract, integrate and train immigrants. According to that report, new immigrants and their children are expected to account for 83 percent of the growth in the U.S. workforce from 2000 to 2050.

“It’s plain suicide if we don’t welcome them,” Chong said.

Many new Mainers struggle to adapt to the United States, but Chong said creative solutions can help them become contributing members of Maine’s workforce. For example, he said contextualized English classes at Portland Adult Education teach new immigrants English terms specific to their chosen fields, such as nursing and construction.



Today, census data shows 13.4 percent of the U.S. population was born in another country.

Compared to the rest of the nation, Maine sees a relatively small flow of new immigrants. About 46,000 people – 3.5 percent of the state’s residents – were born in other countries.

But the intensity of the immigration debate is just as evident.

Nationally, President Trump put immigration front and center with campaign promises and then executive orders to reduce the legal and illegal flow of newcomers to the United States. Both Maine and the nation are once again in turmoil over who and how many people should be allowed to enter the United States.

In recent weeks, Trump issued an order that could result in deporting nearly 800,000 young immigrants, issued a new ban on travelers from eight foreign countries and reduced the cap on incoming refugees to the lowest level since the 1980s.

And, long before Trump began promising a wall along the Mexican border, Maine Gov. Paul LePage was demanding that Portland and other communities cut off public assistance to non-citizens, whom he has broadly referred to as “illegals” even though most are lawful residents.


Maine’s newest immigrants, those born in a foreign country, are mostly from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their journeys to get here were a world apart, but they also are not so different from the Frenchmen who landed on St. Croix Island more than 400 years ago.

They came from away to find a new life, and they find themselves trying to survive in the cold.


Any person who moves from one country to another and intends to stay there permanently.

Are all foreign-born people living in Maine considered immigrants?

No, many are here temporarily and have non-immigrant visas.


What is a visa?

Visas are documents that allow noncitizens to stay in the United States. Immigrant visas are issued to a person who plans to live here permanently, such as family members of U.S. citizens. Non-immigrant visas are for specific periods of time and for specific purposes, such as education, cultural exchange, visiting or working.

How many different kinds of visas are there?

There are more than 20 types of temporary non-immigrant visas. The number of immigrant visas is even greater. There are many more subcategories for the spouses and children of primary visa holders. Some visa programs apply to people from specific countries, others are more general.

Can temporary visa holders become permanent immigrants?

Yes, some do. They may apply for an extended or more permanent status. And, although the vast majority of non-immigrant visa holders leave after their visits, they can also overstay their visas without permission and live in the United States without legal status.


What is a green card?

A green card grants someone legal permanent residence in the United States. A green card also allows immigrants to work in the United States. Normally, a permanent resident of the United States can apply for citizenship through naturalization after five years.

Are all permanent immigrants required to become citizens?

No, a person with a green card is allowed to apply for citizenship, but not required to do so. Green cards typically need to be renewed after varying periods of time.

What does it mean to be undocumented?

An undocumented immigrant is someone who was born in another country and is living in the U.S. without a valid visa or residency status. It could mean the person entered the country illegally, such as by being smuggled across the border, or it could mean someone who arrived legally with a valid visa but stayed after the visa expired.

How many foreign-born people live in Maine?

There are 46,563 people living in Maine who were born in other countries, according to the U.S. Census. That represents 3.5 percent of the state’s population. About half of those people are naturalized citizens, and half are not U.S. citizens. By comparison, 13.4 percent of the U.S. population is foreign born.

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