MILBRIDGE — The Trump administration’s recent decision to end a program protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children could have ripple effects on the local economy.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy set forth by former President Barack Obama in 2012, protected undocumented immigrants from deportation if they arrived in the country before their 16th birthday.
Trump announced Sept. 5 that the program would end in six months, pressuring Congress to enact replacement legislation that would protect young immigrants after DACA ends.
According to Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, DACA participants have always contributed to the economy.
Beth Stickney, of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, said federal documents indicate there are up to 400 DACA recipients in Maine.
“We’re not just talking about DACA,” she said, “we’re talking about human beings, and there is going to be a very real impact on workers and the economy, including in Maine.”
Some 690,000 participants in the program live throughout the country, according to the Washington Post, correcting widely circulated numbers of close to 1 million.
These numbers come from United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services, a subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Stickney said some of those protected migrants live in the Milbridge area and work in agriculture, while others come to the area as seasonal farm workers throughout the year.
“Nobody really knows how many DACA folks are in Maine,” she said.
But Stickney said there will be a negative economic impact felt from Trump’s decision to end the program if Congress doesn’t pass a law before the six-month deadline. With Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol operating in Maine, she said, fewer numbers of DACA recipients meant undocumented immigrants could be at more risk here, as enforcement agencies have more resources to devote to each case.
Both agencies also are subsidiaries of the Department of Homeland Security, and both have the ability to deport undocumented immigrants.
Last week, when Trump announced the decision, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) issued a statement saying he believed DACA recipients should be spared deportation.
“I believe if these people have been fully law-abiding members of our society,” he said, “they should be protected from deportation through legislative action by Congress. At the same time, we need to continue to secure and control our borders. We need to continue our work to end illegal immigration.”
If DACA isn’t replaced by Congress, even if participants are not deported, they will lose their authorization to work, meaning they will stop contributing to the formal economy. Migrant workers make up a considerable portion of farm workers in Washington County each year.
A 2015 report commissioned by the Maine Department of Labor said that about 18 percent of paid hired workers on Maine farms are migrant workers. This definition is broad, and includes Native American tribes such as the Micmacs and the Passamaquoddy, as well as workers who travel to work on farms from other parts of the United States or even within Maine.
The report included a survey conducted by the agency’s intern, Treva deMaynadier, showing that 56 percent of that year’s migrant workers came from Mexico. Haitians made up 10 percent, while workers from El Salvador, Honduras and the Philippines also were represented.
While many in these communities are U.S. citizens, many are also eligible for DACA and may take advantage of the program. These workers live in the Washington County area and contribute to the economy when they come for the blueberry seasons.
This year, some workers were kept away by bottom-level prices that prompted growers to reduce their staffing — meaning DACA’s end could hurt an already tense economic situation.
“As consumers who spend their earnings in local stores and services, [migrant seasonal farm workers] arriving in Maine go mostly unnoticed by the general public,” deMaynadier wrote.
Maine Monitor Advocate Jorge Acero, who engages with agricultural workers in the state, said Washington County’s migrant workers may be affected by the DACA change, though he expects the impact to be small.
“In Washington County, agriculture is pretty important, it’s fairly big. It’s primarily centered around the blueberry,” he said. “The blueberry industry is absolutely dependent on seasonal workers, of course, and I would say that more than half the population that work the blueberry industry in Maine are migrant workers.”
To Stickney, any ripple at all felt in Washington County or Maine in general could be bad, as the state is already dealing with employment issues.
“We’re losing people from our workforce every single day,” Stickney said. “We can’t afford to lose anybody.”
Roche said while many of the people who participate in the program are based in Lewiston and Portland, some in the Washington County area will be affected.
“All of our DACA recipients who we’re aware of are working or in college,” said Roche, referring to clients who have worked with her organization to apply for the deportation protection.
As for the immediate threat to DACA, Roche’s team has put together a one-page explanation for recipients in the Milbridge area that will be distributed to migrant communities in coming weeks. The document has been translated into Spanish.
On the whole, Stickney said the people affected by immigration changes will be contributing members of the economy.