Posted August 14, 2015
Last modified August 25, 2015
This is the second in a series of stories about how immigration is changing coastal Maine. Jennifer Atkinson is a lawyer based in Friendship who specializes in immigration matters.
As Maine’s flagship coastal community, the greater Portland area is home to immigrants from all over the world.
In recent months, one of the city’s immigrant groups, its asylum seekers, has garnered much attention. Having fled here to escape persecution they are now the subjects of a fierce political debate over General Assistance (a voucher program available in each municipality in Maine to help eligible residents obtain basic needs.)
Portland’s other immigrants, like those who came for work, family or school, are almost taken for granted. As of 2013, over 12 percent of Portland’s population was foreign born compared to 3.4 percent statewide.
Almost 32 percent of these new Portlanders are from Asia. By race, Portland as a whole is about 4 percent Asian. And within this growing ethnic slice, people from India constitute the city’s third largest Asian ethnic group.
GETTING A FOOTHOLD
But not too long ago, a person from India was a rare sight. Mamta Punjabi of Scarborough moved to the area with her family 20 years ago.
“If I saw an Indian in a parking lot I would actually stop them and have a conversation. I was so desperate to connect to other people," she remembers. "If I saw anyone I knew was from India I would just introduce myself. It worked because everyone was looking for the same thing.”
Central to this small group was the establishment of the India Association Maine (IAM), a Portland area cultural group that remains active today. According to Punjabi, IAM was pretty small when she got involved, just like the Indian population.
“The whole association was 25 to 40 families. We had three to four functions a year. It was very easy to organize with handwritten notes and phone RSVPs. Our get-togethers were like 40 to 50 people and that was a huge number.”
A fixture of Maine’s Indian community, Punjabi was born in the coastal city of Mumbai, in the west coast state of Maharashtra. After her mother died she emigrated to the U.S. As a teenager she lived in Queens, N.Y. She began her married life in Massachusetts but Maine became her family’s home a few years after her husband expanded his retail business into the Maine Mall.
Today, Punjabi and her sister-in-law run Masala Mahal in South Portland. It’s Maine’s only Indian grocery store.
“Six years back, the part I hated about living in this area was going just for groceries to Massachusetts. I would always come back and realize I forgot to get something and I would be so frustrated. And then I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ So my sister-in-law and I got into it together. And it’s worked out fine so far. Recently we’ve had the community really grow, mostly families with younger kids.”
Subha Raghavan of Cape Elizabeth has noticed the same growth in the Indian population in the nine years that she and her family have lived in Maine. They moved here from Ithaca, N.Y. where her husband was doing his post-doctoral work at Cornell University. Raghavan worked there, too, as a laboratory technician. Both were raised in Madurai, an ancient city in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu.
They were recruited to come to Maine by IDEXX Laboratories, a veterinary biotech firm that began in Maine in 1983 and now has over 6,000 employees worldwide.
Like many new Mainers, Raghavan’s first impressions were about the state’s population.
“I was really surprised because it was not very diverse. Before coming here I had been to New Jersey, New York, all university towns. Even though they are small places there were lots of different cultures and languages," she said. "I kept thinking, ‘Wow this is very different from what I have seen.’ It was the first thing I noticed.”
Raghavan, like Punjabi, found her footing here partly through the India Association of Maine.
“We came in when the population was starting to grow. IAM was here when I got here. It is how we met other families," she said. "We want our kids to interact with other kids from India.”
“And now there are two temples,” adds Raghavan, “the Hindu Temple of Maine and one other called the First Hindu Temple of Maine."
In recent years, Punjabi and Raghavan have seen Portland’s Indian community begin to diversify. Most westerners have a very basic understanding of the intricate tapestry that comprises Indian ethnicity. Yet Indians commonly self-identify as being from the North or the South (in Maine, there are more South Indians), as well as from specific regions marked by language and cultural traditions.
Although Hindi is the official language of government (and English, the unofficial second language, is used in most legal matters), there are over 30 major languages spoken in India.
Today, there are a number of new Indian cultural associations in Portland representing more of India’s rich variety. There is a Tamil Group, a Gujarati Group, a Marathi Group, and the Telegu Association of Maine. Members gather to celebrate their own holidays and traditions, to speak their own language, and to reach out to new arrivals.
IAM has become the group that brings everyone together for the celebrations they all share, like the Diwali holiday or India’s Independence Day.
Punjabi and Raghavan have noticed another change in the local Indian population. When they moved to the Portland area, most of the families had come for a permanent job as a researcher, professor, doctor or to open their own business. But now, the population seems more transient.
“There is a floating population here [in Portland]. Computer consultants come over for a job next year or a few months, then they move on," Ragahavan said. "IDEXX is the Portland I see everyday. When I started, three to four people were from India, maybe ten. I would know every Indian. But now there are many more. I see totally new faces everyday. Consultants may be from India but they are only in Maine for three to six months. There is the feel of more Indians here, but they are not based here.”
Punjabi has seen a similar trend.
“I see that a lot of families will come in on contracts and are here for short time and leave and then new people move in. It’s not a consistent group of people. There are a lot of people you get to know and then they move. There has been lots of that in the last few years.”
TRAPPED IN HIGH TECH
Pavani Kallu and her family have experienced this first hand. She and her husband are from Hyderabad, a well-known high-tech center that is the capital of two South Indian states, Telegana and Andra Pradesh. Although they have lived in South Portland for over four years, prior to being sent here they had lived in three U.S. states in four years.
As a software tester for a multi-national consulting company, Kallu’s husband had a non-immigrant visa that allowed him to be moved from one project to the next to fulfill his company’s contracts.
According to Kallu, a job that looked full of promise in India felt like a dead end once they arrived here. The commission the company took from each paycheck made it hard to build any savings. His non-immigrant L1 visa—which enables foreign nationals of overseas firms to be employed by their branches in the U.S.—trapped him in one position that offered no salary growth.
Being away from family was difficult, too. At one point, they began to think they should return to India.
“The multi-national companies are earning money with these employees," Kallu said. "After the employee is here a couple of years, he realizes it is not enough."
Their fortunes changed when he was offered a position in a U.S. company with a higher salary and a change in non-immigrant visa status to the H-1B visa. Now he works full-time and keeps all of his salary. He has also begun to take the next steps towards applying for a green card so he and his family can become permanent U.S. residents.
IT consultants from India are not only a growing population in Portland. They are bringing diversity to other parts of Maine as well.
Sunil Vijayan and Hiral Jariwala are software developers who met when working for state agencies in Augusta. Both are consultants who move from project to project as non-immigrant visa holders. And both are among the many talented, highly educated professionals who are eligible but still waiting in line to apply for the employment-based green card that confers U.S. permanent residency status.
Vijayan was born in India’s southwestern state of Kerala, and later moved to Hyderabad. He came to the U.S. on an H-1B employment visa to work as an IT consultant for a company in Atlanta. He worked in three southern states before he was assigned to his first project in Maine.
“I didn’t know there was such a state as Maine," he said. Most who emigrate land in major cities. "We are not aware of smaller states. I found the idea fascinating. I didn’t know what it would be like. I didn’t know anything about it. I came in February in 2010, on a Sunday. I was so struck with the cold.”
Jariwala arrived in Maine 11 months later. She is from Gujarat, the western most state in India bordering the Arabian sea. She originally came to the U.S. as a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and then was hired by a U.S.-based IT consulting firm. She worked briefly in Connecticut before being assigned to a project in Maine state government.
“When one of my friends brought me here I was so scared," she remembered. "In 2011, you couldn’t find anything online, like an apartment. What is this city I’m going to?"
Vijayin and Jariwala met while working in Maine but because of their ethnic differences, they were friends only for over two years.
“In July 2014," she recounted, "my parents came here and Sunil proposed to my parents that he liked me. It was like World War III!”
Eventually, their parents relented. Soon after their wedding, however, Vijayin was reassigned to a project in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Everyone knows that the contractor’s life is like this,” reflected Jariwala. “When we chose to be a contractor we know that these are the possibilities. But our scenario was so good. He had been on this project in Maine for five years, so we were in shock when he was reassigned to Nebraska. This is how it will be until we get a green card. If one of us gets it, we can settle somewhere together. It is what most immigrants will do.”
The couple hope they can eventually settle in Maine.
“I told Sunil that we will settle in Maine. I like Maine. I like Maine people.”
He agrees: “I really miss Maine. I miss the warmth of Mainers. I miss the nature, the mountains, the water, the coast.”
At the same time, he acknowledges “jobs will play an important role for us. Hiral wants to find a job in Maine but there are not much job openings or big companies here. It is really tough for us to find a job. If Maine had big companies like Nebraska or Massachusetts then more and more people would stay.”
In South Portland, Mamta Punjabi says most of the Indian newcomers she meets at her grocery work for Maine’s larger corporations.
“IDEXX is one of the companies with growth in the community and Hannaford, Fairchild Semiconductor. Unum is another and Wright Express.”
She also helps those on their way to Maine.
“I get two to three calls a week from folks planning to move to Portland. People are usually coming from out of state, a lot from the West Coast. They’ll find jobs that bring them here and they know nothing about New England weather. They don’t know how cold it gets.”
Winters are not easy for people from India, where a cold winter day can be in the low 50s to high 70s, depending on the region.
“Recently, I’ve seen some families here for ten years who just moved south to escape from the winter,” said Raghavan of Cape Elizabeth.
Given the education and expertise that both she and her husband have, they could live almost anywhere in the U.S. but they are choosing Maine. They often get asked why they stay here.
“Every winter we say we will move but every summer we love it. It really depends on our job. As long as we have a job here, we will be here. We love the place. We love the school. I prefer the way of life overall. It’s better for kids. There’s not much diversity but little overt racism. There’s enough Indian culture here and more not too far away in Massachusetts. It’s a great place to raise kids.”
Although the job opportunities are better in Massachusetts, Raghavan and her family are staying put.
“I grew up in a crowded downtown so I naturally like it," she said. "I also know the negatives. Right now, Maine is home and where I want to be. I don’t want to move back [to India]. I have changed over the years.”
Punjabi has to think hard about what could make the Portland area even better for Indian immigrants, other than warmer winters.
“We have the temple which is so awesome. It fulfills my desire for that. But I miss the most having an Indian movie play every week at a local Indian theatre. I am a total movie person. I love Bollywood and have to plan to go watch an Indian movie. The nearest theatre is in Methuen, Boston, or Cambridge. It’s such an ordeal.”
Whether it is as frustrating to Punjabi as the experiences that fueled Portland’s first Indian grocery store is too soon to tell. But as more Indian immigrants move to the Portland area, Maine’s first Bollywood cinema can’t be too far behind.