June 13, 2013

Immigration reform comes with potential benefits for Maine

Apple farmers, hotel owners, high-tech companies and refugee advocates say the bill makes needed policy changes.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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.   

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