South Korean immigrant Tae Chong spends his days helping to grow Maine’s economy. And he does this, specifically, by helping his fellow immigrants. Chong is a business adviser at Coastal Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit specializing in economic development with 11 offices across the state. There, he works in a program called SmartStart, which helps New Americans start and grow local businesses. “We teach them how to run a company, secure the appropriate paperwork, and we’re a nonprofit bank, so we’ve also handed out more than $1 million [in] microloans,” he says, noting that the 1,3000 immigrant entrepreneurs and 300 businesses they’ve helped over the last 20 years have boosted Maine’s economy. “We all thrive when you give these immigrants the resources they need to be successful.”
Chong became an American citizen at 18 and felt deeply connected to this country since he arrived here at only seven. Still, he never felt truly comfortable growing up in one of the whitest and oldest states in the nation. “I was always the only kid of color in my classroom and I wanted to get out of Maine,” he says. But while saving for a move to California, a friend convinced him to volunteer with some of the state’s Asian-American students living in Portland. “I ended up getting involved with these ESL kids,” says Chong, recalling how shocked he felt to witness the stark contrast between how differently the foreign students were treated from the “mainstream” kids. “They were kept in a separate classroom in the basement of Portland High School and ate in a free and reduced cafeteria, while the other students ate in a newly renovated one or could afford to leave for lunch,” he says. “These kids just didn’t feel like they belonged in Portland or in that school, so they weren’t signing up for any extracurricular activities. These are kids from Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia and they’re not playing soccer!”
Chong contacted a local a journalist to shine light on the issue. An investigation soon followed, he says, which found there were not only disparities in how the foreign students were treated, but in the educations they were receiving as well. The school system was eventually reformed following a lawsuit. “I’ve spent my entire career since then helping immigrants and refugees in some capacity,” says Chong, who went on to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Southern Maine and has since channeled his efforts into making his home a more welcoming place for its foreign-born residents.
“Immigrants and refugees make up 42 percent of Portland’s public school students, and account for 10,000 of our 66,000 residents,” he says. “So it would be devastating to our local economy if we lost them. And since Portland is more than 50 percent of Maine’s economy, the entire state would be negatively impacted. Not to mention that, were it not for the immigrants and refugees who moved here, Maine wouldn’t have had any population growth because our death rate is higher than our birth rate.”
Immigrants and refugees make up 42 percent of Portland’s public school students, and account for 10,000 of our 66,000 residents. So it would be devastating to our local economy if we lost them.
In addition to helping Maine’s non-native residents build successful companies, Chong was part of a team that helped more than 200 of them find jobs by connecting qualified workers with college degrees with open positions, and encouraging employers to expedite their hiring process with job training. He also helped create a program called the Ethnic Produce Project, aimed at convincing local farmers to grow ethnic crops and produce that immigrants eat, which he believes would also benefit the city’s growing foodie scene. “Portland used to be a fishing, manufacturing, blue-collar town, but now it’s all about the restaurant and tourism industries,” says Chong. “And you can’t be a foodie town without the ethnic restaurants and markets.” Besides, he adds, “with more than 80 percent of population growth in the U.S. over the next 40 years coming from immigrants or descendants of immigrants, why not get a jumpstart on growing the kinds of foods they eat?”
Ultimately, Chong says, immigration reform that helps foreign-born newcomers successfully integrate into their local communities makes everyone more prosperous. “Without them you don’t have the infrastructure, the social services, or the service sector in Portland,” he says. “I always go back to the numbers and, the reality is, we’re already behind the rest of New England economically. So we should be trying to bridge that gap by utilizing the knowledge and skill sets these immigrants bring, not falling further behind sending them away and creating barriers that keep them from being able to contribute.”