WASHINGTON – Lewiston’s experience with an influx of Somali immigrants shows the economic energy they can bring, but also the need for the federal government to do more to help the new residents settle into their new life, says Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert.
Gilbert testified Tuesday at a Senate hearing on immigration reform, a session that mostly focused on the system for attracting and retaining high-skill foreign workers in fields such as computer sciences and engineering.
But Gilbert was one of three mayors from around the country invited to address the broader topic of the economic impact of legal immigrants on local communities.
“Fixing a broken immigration system is not just about highly skilled immigrants,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, refugees and border security. “An immigrant comes here wanting to make a better life for his family” and in the process helps pump vitality into the U.S. economy.
About 5,000 immigrants, primarily from Somalia but also from Sudan and Djibouti, have moved since 2001 to the Lewiston-Auburn area and they are “bringing new life and energy” with them, Gilbert told the committee. Lewiston’s population in the 2010 census was 36,592, an increase of 2.5 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Census website.
In downtown Lewiston, formerly vacant storefronts are occupied by immigrant-owned businesses, from restaurants to clothing stores to tax preparation companies. Many downtown apartments in large buildings that used to be occupied by Franco-American mill workers are now home to Somali and other immigrant families, Gilbert said.
“Our immigrant population is having a positive impact on the social fabric of our community and our local economy,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert acknowledged that there have been some rough patches in integrating his city’s new residents into daily life, noting that most of the Somali immigrants come to Lewiston in a “secondary migration” after first settling in bigger cities such as Atlanta. A letter in 2002 by former Lewiston Mayor Laurier Raymond, written as some longtime Lewiston residents began to express concern about the number of immigrants coming into the area, asked Somali leaders to stem the tide of in-migration by the Somali population.
That sparked a demonstration by a national hate group and a much larger counter-demonstration by supporters of the refugee population, Gilbert recounted.
“The road to full assimilation into American culture isn’t easy, but with perseverance and support it will happen,” Gilbert said.
But more support, some of it from the federal government, is needed to help the immigrants living in Lewiston in areas such as workforce training and learning English, Gilbert said.
Aid from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is often available to help immigrants adjust to their new lives. However, the assistance is good for just eight months and does not follow an immigrant to a new city. If an immigrant starts receiving the assistance in, say, Atlanta, and then leaves that city after several months to live in Lewiston, the aid is cut off, Gilbert said.
This makes it harder for immigrants to find jobs and creates more of a hardship on the secondary migration city, Gilbert said.
The “inadequate federal funding associated with a refugee resettlement program simply does not meet the many needs of our refugee residents,” Gilbert said.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.