PORTLAND — The arrival and assimilation of immigrants was praised for moral and economic reasons in two public forums last week.

“We need to diversify, not for any color reasons. Maine faces a demographic crisis,” economist Charles Lawton said Jan. 14 at the First Parish Church on Congress Street.

Lawton was speaking a day after former Maine Attorney General James Tierney opened a series of community discussions sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Maine.

“We are so old that we have got to attract people to come to Maine from someplace else. I don’t care what color they are, I just want them to come here,” Tierney said, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Eva Millona, a former Albanian judge and executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, joined Tierney in the event at the University of Southern Maine.

Lawton was joined by Mayor Michael Brennan, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Hall, former School Board member Tae Chong, and Immigration Legal Advocacy Project Executive Director Sue Roche in a 75-minute round-table discussion moderated by Ralph Carmona.

Chong, who is also a business adviser with Coastal Enterprise, cited the contributions immigrants have made to the economy in California as entrepreneurs, especially in high-tech industries.

“I’d like to have California’s weather, but also their economy,” he said. “Some incredibly skilled young new Americans coming. I’d rather have more of them.”

While Lawton projected as many as 30,000 young Mainers may leave while thousands over the age of 64 remain, Chong noted 50 percent of immigrants arriving in the last five years have college degrees, compared to 32 percent of older Mainers.

“What we are talking about here tonight is not political,” he said. “It is a question about community consensus and choice, and how we want to control our future.”

Linking the immigrants to jobs they are best suited to has been a challenge because of language and cultural barriers and must be addressed, said Alain Nahimana, Maine People’s Alliance Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice organizer, during a public comment session.

Roche and Brennan also spoke on the difficulties of navigating immigration law. Roche said cases pending in the U.S. Immigration Court in Boston are now scheduled through 2020.

Asylum seekers are unable to get work permits for at least 150 days and limited to General Assistance vouchers for housing, food and personal care items. Brennan said the city will continue to fight a Maine Department of Health and Human Services order that denies reimbursements for aid given to undocumented immigrants, including asylum seekers.

Brennan was asked if the city has reached a “tipping point” in terms of accepting and assisting immigrants, whether they are legal refugees or asylum seekers seeking to escape repression.

“The short answer is, I don’t know what the tipping point is,” he said. “We have a moral responsibility to provide a safe haven, and that is above and beyond having a work force.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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