The Portland City Council unanimously approved two proposals Monday that are designed to better integrate immigrants into the community and the workforce.

One vote created a new office in city government that will integrate immigrants and young people of color into the city’s workforce.

The other will continue to provide emergency assistance to immigrants who are awaiting federal rulings on their immigration status and their ability to work.

OFFICE OF ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

The council approved the Office of Economic Opportunity: Serving Immigrants, People of Color and Other Underserved Populations to help immigrants and people of color find community resources to be more competitive in the workforce.

More than 60 other cities in the U.S. have similar offices.

City Councilor David Brenerman leads the council’s Economic Development Committee, which proposed the office to the full council.

Over the last eight months, Brenerman said, it became clear that coordination is lacking among groups that serve immigrants who are looking for language and job skills, and data are lacking on how effective their programs are.

“The city can play the role as the convener and coordinator to bring the service providers and the people of the city together to remove barriers for folks to make sure they have the tools to find gainful employment in the city,” he said.

The proposal was supported by the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce and residents who see immigrants as being able to fill skilled jobs and reverse declining populations.

“I wish there was an office like this for my parents when they arrived,” said Tae Chong, a first-generation immigrant who has lived in Portland for 40 years.

Peaks Island resident Arthur Fink said he was excited that the proposal was being put forward. He hopes that it will help change people’s attitudes toward immigrants, many of whom were skilled professionals in their home countries but simply lack language skills to be successful here.

“This is not a group to look down on, but a group to welcome and look up to,” Fink said.

Immigration lawyer Beth Stickney said that other U.S. cities that have created similar offices have bolstered their communities – especially aging communities like Maine. “They have been able to stem their population decline and repopulate their schools and repopulate their labor forces.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling commended the committee for its work, saying that it was perhaps the most consequential action the council has taken during his term.

“You have set the stage for what this city needs for decades to come,” Strimling said.

The office will seek to improve coordination, communication and collaboration with community service providers, collect data, connect immigrant workers with employers, increase internship opportunities and find ways to address challenges immigrants face – such as improving English proficiency – when trying to find jobs.

The office will focus on bringing together dozens of service providers, educational institutions and businesses to match resources to the needs, while plugging gaps in service.

It comes with an annual cost of $260,000 and is to be staffed by a director, who will report to the city manager, and two program managers. One program manager will focus on the immigrant population, while the other will work with people of color and young people. The city expects to fund most of the program through grants, though the director will be paid with city funds.

Portland has long been a city of immigrants, dating to its earliest days. More recently, it has been the destination for African refugees and asylum seekers escaping dangerous situations at home. Refugees typically have to wait years in camps before they are brought to the U.S. by an official agency, whereas asylum seekers arrive legally with visas and then apply for political asylum.

Of Portland’s 66,000 residents, nearly 4,800 are black or African American, 2,250 are Hispanic or Latino and 2,500 are Asian, according to 2015 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

GENERAL ASSISTANCE

The council also voted unanimously to continue providing benefits similar to General Assistance to immigrants deemed ineligible under state rules adopted this year. The city will provide the assistance with local funds, rather than seeking reimbursement from the state.

The council had to amend its General Assistance ordinance to align with state rules that exclude previously eligible immigrants, including those who are working on their asylum applications and unaccompanied minors.

“There is no impact on the recipients of these benefits in Portland,” said Councilor Justin Costa. “All we’re doing here is essentially setting up a parallel system.”

The current budget included $250,000 to help such immigrants. To date, less than $90,000 of that has been spent, according to city officials.

Advocates including Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project applauded Portland’s willingness to use local funds to help all immigrants.

They asked the city to pass a separate ordinance codifying its use of local funds to help immigrants excluded by the state, since a policy could easily be changed by a future city administration. A new ordinance would give it the force of law, they said.

“This would make clear to the people of Portland that people seeking asylum will be helped and what the details are around that help,” said Joby Thoyalil, a policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Councilor Pious Ali sought to postpone the vote to better inform the immigrant community about potential impacts, but the council proceeded on the advice of its attorney,

Danielle West-Chuhta. She argued against a separate ordinance, since it would be perceived as a conflict when seeking state reimbursement.

“The concerns are the rules allow reimbursement to be withheld,” she said.

Previous disagreements over immigrant aid between Portland and the state have already cost the city roughly $3 million.

Other groups previously deemed eligible for state assistance, but who now will receive local assistance, include parents or guardians of American-born children, as well as unaccompanied minors – a federal designation for children who crossed the border without a legal guardian.

However, all of those groups will continue to receive benefits using local tax dollars.

Immigration advocates say they continue to monitor the implementation of the state rules before deciding whether to seek changes by filing a lawsuit, according to Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income residents.