By Tom Lamia
Several years ago, I was having construction work done at my farm property here in Maine. The contractor brought in a crew of workers to do the grading, paving and fencing for the project. Among this crew was a youngish looking guy who I took to be an African American, a rare racial category in Maine. It became clear very quickly that this guy, Mike, was the crew chief for the project. As we talked about the progress of the job, I learned that Mike was not African American, or at least not a prototypical one, he was an immigrant African from Rwanda who had arrived in Maine only a few years before.
Mike Mwenedata’s story is perhaps not typical of immigrants, whether asylum seekers or immigrant workers with green cards. Mike was orphaned at six when his entire immediate family, mother, father and three siblings, were killed in a single bomb explosion during the ethnic warfare between Hutus and Tutsis. He survived because he was buried underneath his family members and thought to be dead. With that origin story, it should be no surprise that Mike is not only an indefatigable construction worker; he is a humanitarian entrepreneur as well.
Mike tells his story at rwandabean.com:
“When I arrived in America (nine years ago), my apartment happened to be above a coffee shop. I noticed people paying $3 or $4 for one cup of coffee, sometimes two or three times a day. I thought back to my home country where $4 a day could easily feed an entire family. As I explored the coffee industry more closely I realized that practically none of the nearby coffee shops were selling Rwandan coffee.”
Rwanda is in the highlands of central Africa, north of Burundi and east of the Congo border. It is ideally suited for the growing of coffee beans. Mike knew the coffee growers in his native region of Rwanda and worked out a commercial arrangement for importing coffee beans directly from the growers, cutting out the middleman and saving the cost of brokerage. Mike filled what he saw as a need for Rwandan sourced coffee in Portland, Maine. He founded Rwanda Bean Company LLC and set about importing, warehousing, roasting and selling coffee. It’s delicious. Rwanda Bean coffee has become a popular item in markets and cafes in Portland and nearby towns. That was six years ago. Mike Mwenedata is an example of the economic benefits immigrants bring.
Without boring you and taxing my knowledge and research capabilities beyond their limit, I want to say some simple things about the process and effects of granting asylum to refugees. This part is not a Maine story, though Maine stands tall in the national story of refugee immigration benefits. The Somali community in Lewiston, Maine, is a success story on an even grander scale than Rwanda Bean.
Immigration status is highly politicized, of course. It always has been, is now and likely always will be, because it is a matter of whom we choose to invite into our house. This is true for every country. Our difference is that gaining entrance to the opportunity and promise of America is the immigration gold standard. Probably for that reason it is governed by a hornet’s nest of treaties, compacts, laws and regulations. Today, for persecuted minorities, or simply individuals, seeking shelter in the U.S., the process is even more daunting. But whether an immigrant or a refugee, the new entrant is highly likely to make a positive economic contribution. The Refugee Processing Center knows this and works with community organizations throughout our country to place asylum seekers and refugees. There are pockets of resettled people in many U.S, communities. Maine has several, including in Portland and nearby Lewiston.
The beginning of a rational, globally acceptable system of refugee resettlement came out of the chaos of WWII and the creation of the U.N. The persecution of ethnic and religious minorities was a core cause of the war. The unconditional surrender of the Axis countries cleared the field for global agreement. The holocaust and the destruction of physical assets in the war, led to a mass movement of displaced persons fleeing further persecution within newly defined borders. The result was the system that we have today.
Current attitudes among Republicans toward immigration seem at odds with (1) our national character, and (2) our economic self-interest. An incident from 1939 has come to symbolize our country’s failure to live up to our national ideals. A ship carrying over 900 Jews on the run from Nazi Germany sailed for Cuba where its passengers planned to disembark and wait for clearance to enter the U.S. Cuba accepted the travel documents of only 28 of the 900. The rest remained on board as Cuba ordered the ship out of Havana harbor. Entreaties to Washington and to Ottawa were ignored or rejected. With no entry approval to land in either the U.S. or Canada, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where one-third of the passengers did not survive. Our leadership in the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 could not wholly remove the shame brought by this incident, but it was a step in that direction.
Our willingness to accept immigrants and refugees, whether those fleeing the wolves of war or those seeking professional advancement or family reunification, proved to bring economic benefits for the country. The proof is in data collected over 70 years. On essentially every index of economic contribution, such immigrants outperform native-born Americans.
Demonizing immigrants, especially those who are English language deficient, unskilled industrial or agricultural workers has become a ripe political opportunity, notwithstanding the history of their contributions to our economy. Not so long ago, Republicans like Senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John McCain of Arizona were respected champions of immigration. Now, it seems, their advocacy of immigration would be taken as a sign of weakness, even disloyalty, to their political party.
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