PORTLAND — As the year comes to an end and Congress has failed to act on immigration reform in 2013, it is critical for Maine that lawmakers live up to their promises to address the issue first thing in 2014. Maine can’t afford the “do-nothing” tactics in Congress, where comprehensive immigration reform is held hostage by polarized politics.

Immigration reform is essential for our nation, and even more so for Maine, its oldest and whitest state. We need immigrants, who help revitalize our cities, increase our workforce, put money into our economy, start new businesses and offer culture and diversity that enrich our traditional communities.

As each day passes, talented Mainers are kept out of the workforce and forced to live in the shadows because of their immigration status. Record deportations continue to tear families apart. At the same time, our hospitality and agricultural industries struggle amidst worker shortages; our high-tech companies struggle to attract innovative talent and our immigrant entrepreneurs remain stifled in their ability to start businesses.

At the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, we see firsthand the drastic consequences these laws have on our clients who lack permanent, stable immigration status.

Like the immigrants who built this state and our nation, our clients are strong and courageous, hardworking people who gave up everything they knew to follow the American dream. These are people we want here, helping us build Maine’s future.

If a comprehensive immigration reform bill passes, it will have a significant impact in Maine. Although the prospects of a bill passing this year are over, the bill is far from dead, with members of the U.S. House promising to take it up in 2014.

Momentum from around the country, and from unusual partners including business and labor, advocacy and faith groups, Republicans and Democrats, led to the U.S. Senate’s passage of a bipartisan reform bill. So much support from such disparate groups, at a time when agreement is rare, demonstrates the unambiguous will of the people – that now is the time to fix our broken immigration system.

Since the Senate’s bill passed, momentum stalled this year in the House, as Speaker John Boehner refused to allow any immigration legislation to go to the House floor for a vote, despite the consensus that it would pass.

The House Judiciary Committee has passed five bills through piecemeal legislation. However, none has gone to the full House for a vote. And none offers solutions for the 11 million undocumented people, the families waiting decades for reunification, asylum seekers whose work authorization is delayed, or who are turned away for purely bureaucratic reasons.

House Democrats have offered their own version of the Senate’s comprehensive bill, with three Republican co-sponsors. The speaker should send legislation that addresses the comprehensive problems with our immigration system to the House floor for a vote when Congress reconvenes in early 2014, and allow the democratic process to work.

We need immigrants to help revitalize Maine’s economy. A report released Nov. 19 by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation discusses the important role immigrants will play in Maine’s economic future.

“Growing Maine’s Workforce” describes the workforce crisis facing Maine today, warning that if population growth continues on its projected path, our ratio of persons of working age compared to retirement age will decline by almost half in the next 12 years.

The report recommends recruiting more foreign workers to address the dire needs of Maine’s economy. As recently described by Chamber CEO Dana Connors, immigrants now, as in generations past, are essential to the plan the chamber hopes will increase Maine’s workforce by 65,000 by the year 2020.

For this plan to work, we must have immigration laws that permit those already living here in our community to obtain work authorization and a path to citizenship. This will allow them to build permanent ties in Maine and to become full participants in our society.

We must have sufficient visas to keep families together and to meet the demands of our economy. This cannot happen with our current immigration laws, and it cannot happen with legislation that focuses only on border security rather than addressing the comprehensive problems inherent in our system.

Maine’s U.S. senators and House members are on the right side of this issue, and it is time for the rest of Washington to get on board and listen to the voices that sent them there. We urge Congress to make immigration reform a priority in early 2014. Now is the time for us to act. Maine’s future depends on it.

— Special to the Press Herald

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