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

(Continued from page 2)

“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 WORKERS   

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   

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: kmiller@mainetoday.com   On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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