WASHINGTON — There’s no talk of building a fence or wall along Maine’s 600-mile-long border with Canada.
Nor is illegal immigration the type of polarizing election-year issue that can make or break political candidates in Maine, as it can in some parts of the South and West.
But as the Senate begins debating the most comprehensive immigration reform proposal in years, a broad swath of interest groups in Maine – from apple farmers to hotel owners, high-tech companies to refugee advocates – are pushing for passage of a bill they say contains some much-needed policy changes.
“It’s important for us to have immigration laws that reflect the realities of our economy and our family relationships,” said Susan Roche, interim executive director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Portland-based nonprofit that offers legal assistance to immigrants.
The issue is also focusing attention on Maine’s two U.S. senators – and particularly Republican Sen. Susan Collins – as supporters work to pick up the bipartisan votes needed to advance the bill. Senate leaders hope to complete work on the bill by July.
“I don’t know that we expect this debate to be easy necessarily,” Cecilia Munoz, director of President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, told reporters last week as the White House stepped up its targeted political campaign ahead of the Senate votes. “But there is a lot of evidence that leadership in both parties in both bodies recognize that it is in the country’s best interest and that it’s in their best interest to move immigration reform forward.”
The offices of Collins and Sen. Angus King report receiving a healthy number of calls, emails and letters from people on both sides of the issue. King, who has indicated that he supports many aspects of the Senate bill, received more than 650 contacts from Mainers in the past two weeks.
A moderate Republican viewed as a potential swing vote, Collins has said she supports comprehensive immigration reform, including changes that would allow young people brought to the country and highly skilled workers to remain in the country. But she has yet to weigh in on the specifics of the Senate bill.
“Senator Collins has a thick notebook detailing the bill, and she intends to spend the weekend analyzing the many aspects to be ready for the important debate next week,” said Kevin Kelley, Collins’ spokesman.
DIVERSE GROUP OF IMMIGRANTS
Determining the number of illegal immigrants in Maine or any state is difficult, but the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the figure was less than 10,000 in 2010. Overall, there were roughly 43,000 foreign-born individuals in Maine in 2011, or 3.3 percent of the population in that year. Census data show that the percentage is rising, however, and that growth is all the more significant given Maine’s slow overall population growth and aging demographics.
Although the influx of Somali and Sudanese immigrants to cities such as Lewiston and Portland has garnered the most attention, Jennifer Sporzynski with Wiscasset-based CEI said her organization’s business start-up assistance program has worked with more than 1,000 individuals from 84 different countries since 1997.
“People think Maine doesn’t have this diverse group of immigrants, but it really does,” said Sporzynski, director of CEI’s micro-enterprise resource and policy development.
Arguably the centerpiece of the immigration reform bill negotiated by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate is the so-called “pathway to citizenship” for an estimated 11 million people living in this country illegally. Negotiations on a separate immigration reform bill are ongoing in the Republican-controlled House, but the growing influence of the Hispanic and immigrant vote means that any compromise is likely to include some provision to help some undocumented workers gain citizenship.
To qualify under the Senate bill, undocumented immigrants already in the country would have to be gainfully employed throughout the years-long application process, undergo background checks, and pay fines and back taxes. Border security and enforcement would be stepped up in a compromise with those concerned about an influx of new illegal immigrants, although by how much remains a matter of discussion.
The Senate proposal remains controversial, however, and not just among conservatives opposed to creation of an “amnesty” program for illegal immigrants. Some representatives of the black community have raised concerns about increased competition for already scarce jobs in some sectors.
BENEFITS FOR MAINE
Given Maine’s relatively small number of undocumented immigrants, the state is unlikely to see a flood of illegal immigrants coming out of the shadows to take advantage of such a citizenship “pathway.”
Instead, those closely tracking the debate say there are a host of other, often less-controversial provisions in the Senate bill that would likely benefit Maine in other ways.
For example, proposals seek to streamline the “guest worker” or H-2A visa program for farms that hire temporary immigrant laborers when they cannot find ample U.S. workers. The bill would also increase federal monitoring of the flow of temporary workers into the country and set a range of wage levels that vary by job and region.
State Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner obtains anywhere from 30 to 65 federal “guest worker” visas every year at harvest-time on his family’s farm, Ricker Hill Orchards. Timberlake said complying with the H-2A visa application process is costly and time-consuming, and the system is too inflexible considering the unpredictability of when a crop is ready to harvest.
But Timberlake said he also hopes that any immigration reform will help target those farms that hire undocumented laborers, thereby avoiding the extra costs that he and other farmers who follow the law incur when hiring documented guest workers.
“Anything that puts everybody on the same playing field is good,” Timberlake said. “I don’t mind competing in a global market as long as everybody is on the same playing field.”
U.S Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking last week to a group of reporters primarily from states with potential swing-vote senators, called immigration reform and reauthorization of a multiyear farm bill the two most important issues to the agriculture sector this year.
“This has a direct, profound impact on rural communities,” Vilsack said of immigration reform.
High-tech companies in New England and across the country, meanwhile, are lobbying hard to support a proposal in the Senate bill to nearly double the number of visas granted to high-skilled foreign workers. Like agricultural jobs, those positions are only supposed to go to foreign workers when no qualified American citizens are willing or able to fill them – a requirement that critics say is not always observed.
Although Maine’s unemployment rate remains elevated, there are more jobs for highly skilled and high-tech workers available than there are qualified applicants in the state. And the number of open jobs in Maine in science, technology, engineering and math fields – known by the acronym STEM – is projected to increase to 25,000 by 2018, according to information distributed by The New England Council.
“The New England economy is the innovation economy, and the reason why is we have so many colleges, we have so many hospitals and we have so many research and development facilities,” said James Brett, president and CEO of The New England Council, a nonpartisan organization that lobbies on business and economic development policies on Capitol Hill.
The Senate bill would increase from 65,000 to 110,000 the number of STEM visas issued annually, many of which go to international students graduating from U.S. universities. The bill creates an opening for that figure to rise to 180,000. Additionally, the bill would double the visa fee that employers pay, with that money earmarked for STEM programs in high schools and colleges in an attempt to get more students interested in science and math careers.
Other changes would likely benefit immigrants who come to Maine seeking refuge or asylum. For instance, the Senate bill would eliminate the requirement that immigrants file an application for asylum within one year.
Roche with the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project said one year is sometimes too narrow a timeframe for refugees who arrive with little knowledge of the U.S. system or money to pay for an attorney.
Other proposals would change the hearing process for asylum seekers, remove bureaucratic issues that could delay immigrants receiving work permits and increase funding for judges and court staff who handle immigration cases.
“It will improve things in Maine and will improve conditions in America,” said Alain Nahimana, immigration and racial justice organizer at the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal organization .
“This is a situation that needs to be fixed once and for all.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: [email protected] On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC