Today our country is in the midst of an important debate about immigration reform. The story of America is a story of immigrants — hardworking people who came here with a dream to better themselves and their families. Immigrants have played a vital role in our country for centuries, and it is something we should all be proud of.
In the past, Maine’s economic growth came in part from the immigrants who came here looking to build a better life. Many of our ancestors came to Maine to work in factories, on docks or in construction. Together, they built our working waterfront and our railroads.
The Quebecois came to work in the mills in Lewiston, Biddeford and other towns, driving the revolution that drew Maine into the Industrial Age. More recently, immigrants from Central America have come to work in our farms and orchards.
If we want Maine to prosper in the future, we need to ensure a place here for immigrant workers and their families. To do that, we must deal with our outdated and unfair immigration laws.
This year, the Maine Chamber of Commerce and Maine AFL-CIO have come together to support comprehensive immigration reform.
Our economy urgently needs reform that levels the playing field for hard workers and honest employers; sets stronger standards for temporary-worker programs; sets standards for visas that respond to employers’ needs while protecting the wages and working conditions of American workers; and establishes a clear and concise path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.
Both Maine workers and businesses would benefit from a workable immigration system that includes a roadmap to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who live, work and raise families in our country, but who must live in fear of deportation, incarceration or losing contact with their families because of their immigration status.
We would also benefit from a system that would allow employers to hire the workers they need to continue to grow our economy, whether in the agriculture and tourism industries or the high-tech industries.
From the business community’s perspective, we need immigrant labor to keep our economy going. We have heard over and over from employers that the current immigration system is too cumbersome to manage.
Our companies can’t expand if they don’t have the workers to get the job done, and a reform of our immigration system is an opportunity to remove some of the barriers that are holding our economy back.
Paired with stronger workplace protections, a roadmap to citizenship will also keep unscrupulous competitors from exploiting temporary workers and undercutting responsible businesses that are committed to treating their workers fairly.
Nobody should fear losing everything for speaking up against unsafe working conditions, wage theft or any other workplace abuse. Nor should businesses feel like they must choose between playing by the rules and getting ahead.
We feel strongly that immigration reform will help our state economy. Currently Maine has the oldest population in the country. It is a simple truth that we need to bring more families and workers to Maine if we want to stimulate demand, create jobs and grow our economy and incomes. We need to attract people who will move to Maine communities, start new businesses and make Maine their home.
About 1.8 million people move to the United States from abroad each year, yet Maine captures only about 0.14 percent of all immigrants to the United States — less than other Northern rural states like New Hampshire, Idaho and Minnesota. More must be done if we are to turn demographic trends around. We need to ensure that our state and our country are a welcoming place for those willing to follow the process to come here.
It is not every day that you see the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine Chamber of Commerce come together and agree on something, but comprehensive immigration reform is one issue that we agree must be urgently and correctly addressed. It is time to do the right thing for the communities and country we all call home.
Don Berry is president of the Maine AFL-CIO, and Dana Connors is president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce.