WESTBROOK, Maine — Workers at a red-brick factory called American Roots had to decide amid a pandemic whether to come back to work. Instead of the usual sweatshirts and knit caps, they would churn out masks to protect front-line workers from the novel coronavirus. Or they could take the safer route: Stay home and collect unemployment.
Almost all were immigrants from Africa or the Middle East, and workers said none of them flinched when they gathered on the factory floor that morning in March. Everyone voted to keep stitching.
“I’m not scared,” said Maria Lutina, 42, an asylum seeker from Angola and the factory’s head stitcher who helped design the masks. “Americans, they need it.”
Immigrants and refugees help power Maine, America’s oldest and Whitest state, by picking blueberries, packing meat and tending to the elderly far from the fancy resorts on Vacationland’s rocky coast. But in a state that has one of the lowest rates of coronavirus infections, a pattern has emerged: Black Mainers — many of them immigrants — have been infected at disproportionate rates, accounting for approximately 22 percent of the cases in a state where they are less than 2 percent of the population. American Roots has not been spared; on July 16, state officials announced that 11 employees had tested positive for the virus.
Four of the state’s 122 coronavirus deaths have been among Black Mainers, who health officials said tend to be younger and less likely to exhibit symptoms of the virus’s disease, covid-19. But advocates for immigrants say many have been ill, and a state lawmaker warned that Black residents in Maine and nationwide are facing the “twin pandemics” of systemic racism that hinders access to health care, and a virus that has disproportionately infected people of color.
The most recent state data show that at least 869 of the 3,888 Mainers who have had the coronavirus are Black. Maine does not collect data for immigrants, following federal guidelines, but officials said contact tracing showed that many of those affected are immigrants or their children. Latinos account for a smaller number of cases, about 145 infections.
Leaders of immigrant organizations said Maine initially was slow to offer testing, provide bilingual contact tracers and directly invest in immigrant organizations that know the communities best. Much of the initial funding went to mostly White-led organizations that subcontract with immigrant groups.
State officials say they are scrambling to address the racial disparity by expanding testing and health care, and finding ways to provide direct aid to immigrant groups to prevent the virus’s spread. Officials are also hiring more bilingual staff members and have translated coronavirus information into at least 11 other languages.
“We know we’ve had long-standing racial disparities in our health-care system, and we know that racism is a problem in Maine, as it is elsewhere,” said Jeanne Lambrew, the state’s Health and Human Services commissioner. “So we are trying to obviously act with urgency because we are trying to prevent what we’re seeing from getting worse.”
Nationwide, the vast majority of Black people are native-born U.S. citizens, according to the Census Bureau, but in more than a dozen states including New York, Massachusetts, the Dakotas and Minnesota, large shares of the Black population are immigrants. They face racial discrimination and language or cultural barriers that can impede efforts to stop the coronavirus’s spread, such as public briefings about the pandemic that are only in English.
Almost half the Black people in Maine are immigrants, the highest share in the nation. Most are from African nations including Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although the spread of the coronavirus among Black residents has slowed in recent weeks, advocates for immigrants warn that conditions in Maine are ripe for a spike in infections if officials do not reach immigrants directly.
Ines Mugisha, a 34-year-old immigrant from Burundi, said her husband, a home health-care aide for people with mental disabilities, caught the virus in recent weeks and spread it to her and their young children, including an 18-month old son. She said the couple had fevers and headaches, and they have recovered.
“We’re still scared,” she said.
Fatuma Hussein, a Somali refugee and community leader in Lewiston, a city of 36,000 about an hour’s drive from Westbrook, said advocates knew instantly that the fast-spreading coronavirus “would be a disaster” for immigrants — one reason they urged the state to ramp up efforts to prevent the virus’s spread. Many immigrants have large families with eight to 10 children packed into tenements in the state’s cities. They carpool to work and the grocery store, and some wrongly believed the virus would not affect them.
“Both sides, they weren’t working for us,” said Hussein, the executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, based in Lewiston. “And then it was too late.”
The criticism overshadowed a new gubernatorial administration that has attempted to strike a more welcoming tone for immigrants, who account for less than 4 percent of Maine’s population. But immigrants are increasingly filling jobs as home health-care aides and grocery store clerks in a state that had more deaths than births last year.
Former governor Paul LePage, a White Republican who left office last year after term limits kicked in, had attempted to block refugees from coming to Maine, and called asylum seekers the state’s biggest problem.
Mainers replaced him with Gov. Janet Mills, a White Democrat who had defended immigrants as the state attorney general and welcomed hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa last year after they showed up at the southern U.S. border with Mexico.
Mills said she has met with representatives of immigrant, racial and ethnic groups about the coronavirus and pledged to “work to reduce these inequities.”
“It is deeply disheartening, and, frankly, unacceptable to me that Maine is confronting such significant racial disparities,” Mills said in a statement, adding that the pandemic “has laid bare the deep-seated inequities and racism in our society that deserve our attention.”
On Thursday, Mills announced a $1 million investment from the Coronavirus Relief Fund “to significantly and quickly expand services to help reduce the disproportionately large racial and ethnic disparities” in coronavirus infections, including by providing direct aid to community-based non-profits.
On a warm mid-July afternoon in downtown Lewiston, on a street lined with Somali shops and groceries that some call “Little Mogadishu,” Hussein and an assistant used some of their funding to canvass the neighborhood to hand out masks and information about where to get a coronavirus test.
As soon as Hussein stepped into the street, traffic stopped. Drivers waved. Pedestrians shouted hello. A woman stuck her head out a first-floor window and said she did not have any masks for her family.
“How many do you need, my sister?” Hussein called out.
“Ten, all of us. Thank you,” said Makia Djidrine, a 35-year-old who fled the Central African Republic and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. She has two children. Her brother has six.
Hussein said it is this type of direct canvassing that can make the biggest difference for immigrants. Many fled violent regimes and do not trust the government. But they trust Hussein.
As she made her way to Kennedy Park, three maskless young Somali women tried to dodge Hussein as they glided down the street.
“I’m your auntie,” Hussein scolded them in English and Somali. “You can’t just walk away.”
Wishing they were at the beach, instead of listening to a lecture about covid-19, they rolled their eyes at Hussein and her bag of masks.
“We can’t breathe in the mask,” one, who declined to give her name.
Each took a mask and put it on, and some extras to bring home.
“You know we’ve had a lot of coronavirus,” Hussein said seriously. “Please tell your relatives.”
In Westbrook, a city of 19,000 on the banks of the Presumpscot River in southeast Maine, the textile industry had all but dried up when Ben Waxman moved back to his home state in early 2013. He had spent years as a top official with the AFL-CIO in Washington and dreamed of following his mother, Dory, who ran a woolen goods company, into the textile business.
Waxman said the skilled labor that disappeared with the textile mills was difficult to find, and he and co-owner, his wife, Whitney, could not have opened his company two years later without immigrants eager to learn how to stitch. Immigrants are now 80 percent of the staff.
“If this isn’t what America is all about, I don’t know what is,” he said.
A naturalized citizen from Iraq is the union president. Other employees hail from Congo, Ethiopia and Vietnam. They have a prayer room for Muslims. Many of the company’s employees weathered unspeakable violence and war before they guided the Waxmans through the roller-coaster ride of owning a business.
The Waxmans faced financial ruin in 2018 after a big order of sweatshirts disintegrated in the wash. Lutina, the head stitcher, prodded the couple to keep going, telling the Waxmans their company would one day be bigger than L.L. Bean, whose headquarters are about 30 minutes from American Roots.
“We will get through this,” Lutina said.
American Roots did.
“That really resonated with me,” Waxman said. “They walked out of war-torn countries with the clothes on their backs. ... If they could get through something horrible, why couldn’t Whitney and I lead the company through something horrible?”
Now the crisis is the coronavirus. American Roots had fewer than 30 employees when the virus hit. Once the company switched to making masks, the staff expanded to more than 100, creating jobs for immigrants and native-born Americans alike.
“I’m scared,” said Ragad Abo Al Jaaz, a 35-year-old floor supervisor and refugee from Iraq who came to the United States with her family in 2011. They were fleeing threats because her husband had worked for the U.S. Embassy. But, she said, “it’s what I do. These masks can help a lot people in America.”
Waxman said he has tried to keep everyone safe. Everyone’s temperatures are checked before each shift, sewing machines are spaced six feet apart, and the factory is cleaned daily.
But on July 16, Waxman learned that one worker had tested positive for the coronavirus. Then a second. They shut down the factory for sanitizing and testing, and discovered that 11 employees in all had the virus, although Waxman said none had symptoms of covid-19.
The stitchers and cutters who did not have the virus had to decide once more whether to come back to work.
They started the next day.
Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design by Tara McCarty. Editing by Katie Zezima. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo.