WASHINGTON – Lewiston’s experience with an influx of Somali immigrants shows not only 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 lives, says Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert.

Gilbert testified Tuesday at a Senate hearing on immigration reform, a session that focused mostly on the system for attracting and retaining skilled foreign workers in fields such as computer science 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., 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, he said.

About 5,000 immigrants, primarily from Somalia but also from Sudan and Djibouti, have moved to the Lewiston-Auburn area since 2001, Gilbert told the panel, and they are “bringing new life and energy” with them. 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 millworkers now house 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,” he said.

Gilbert acknowledged that there have been some rough patches in integrating the new residents into daily life in Lewiston, noting that most of the Somali immigrants come to the city in a “secondary migration” after first settling in bigger cities such as Atlanta.

A letter in 2002 by then-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.

That sparked a demonstration by an anti-immigrant group and a much larger counterdemonstration by supporters of the refugee population, Gilbert said.

“The road to full assimilation into American culture isn’t easy, but with perseverance and support, it will happen,” he said.

But more support, some of it from the federal government, is needed to help the immigrants in Lewiston with job 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 covers 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 for Lewiston, the aid is cut off, Gilbert said.

This makes it harder for immigrants to find jobs and creates more of a hardship for the secondary migration city, he said.

“(The) inadequate federal funding associated with (the) refugee resettlement program simply does not meet the many needs of our refugee residents,” Gilbert said.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or:

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