PORTLAND – A group of Maine business leaders is joining with immigration and civil rights advocates to oppose new restrictions that they say would punish new arrivals and hurt the state’s economy.
“Creating undue burdens for our newcomers would not be good for any of us,” said David Barber, president and chief executive officer of Barber Foods in Portland. “Maine’s immigration policy must enhance our reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state.”
Barber, the grandson of an Armenian immigrant, helped introduce The Maine Compact during a news conference Thursday. The group, which includes business leaders, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said it plans to fight efforts to adopt Arizona-style immigration policies in Maine.
State Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, has proposed legislation based on the controversial Arizona law that allows government officials to ask for proof of citizenship if they suspect someone may be an illegal immigrant. That bill is among more than two dozen immigration proposals that The Maine Compact is monitoring, its members said.
Chase said her bill is aimed at illegal immigrants and should not hurt Maine’s economy.
“I absolutely agree with legal immigration,” Chase said. “If they want to come here legally … I absolutely welcome them.”
She said her proposal would ensure that Maine doesn’t become a haven for illegal immigrants and that the state doesn’t provide benefits such as welfare to illegal immigrants.
“Why would it scare people who are legally here?” she said. “I personally do not believe that it would.”
Members of The Maine Compact said such a policy would harm legal immigrants and the economy, without fixing any problems.
People who apply for welfare, for example, must prove that they are legal residents under existing state and federal laws, said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
Bellows said the Arizona law faces legal challenges and has caused legal immigrants to be questioned and detained, making documented workers feel afraid or unwelcome.
And, she said, illegal immigration is not a large problem in Maine.
Maine had nearly 40,000 foreign-born residents in 2008, about 3 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of those immigrants were naturalized U.S. citizens.
Illegal immigrants made up just 0.5 percent of the state’s work force in 2008, representing 3,550 workers, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Barber said immigrants who come here legally to work are vital to the family business his grandfather founded. Barber Foods’ employees come from nearly 50 countries and speak about 30 languages, he said.
“Since the immigrant community was not welcomed with open arms (when his grandfather arrived), my father made a promise that if he could help newcomers, he would,” Barber said.
Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, said his grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe who started the family business in 1936.
He valued his freedom here “since he had narrowly escaped a country where being a Jew meant having to carry an ID card and eventually wearing an armband identifying you as such,” Lee said.
Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said immigrants are now working in every sector of the economy and Maine must attract more new workers, from other states or other countries, to replenish its aging work force. Maine also needs immigrant visitors to fuel the state’s tourism industry, she said.
According to The Maine Compact, Arizona suffered economic losses in the millions of dollars after passing the “show-me-your-papers” law. The New York Times reported in November that Arizona’s convention business was down $45 million for the year, and that some estimate the convention business will take a $750 million hit from the controversy.
“Maine’s government needs to send a strong message not just that we are ‘open for business’ but that we are ‘open to immigrants.’ ” Stickney said.
For more information about The Maine Compact, go to http://www.mclu.org/compact.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: