Maine’s largest city is looking for better ways to integrate immigrants into the Greater Portland economy.

The City Council’s Economic Development Committee will hold a public hearing at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the State of Maine room at City Hall on a proposal to create an Office of New Americans, which would further efforts to help immigrants create businesses and get jobs. The city also recently touted a new program designed to move immigrants who are authorized to hold a job off of welfare and into the workforce.

Exploring the creation of an Office of New Americans was one of the few priorities that received unanimous support from the council as a way to foster economic development in the city, Mayor Ethan Strimling said.

“These are high-level professionals from other countries coming here looking for the opportunities to contribute to our economy,” Strimling said. “Generations and generations of this city have been built by immigrants and new Mainers, but we have not done a good job incorporating our immigrants into our economy.”

The increased focus on Maine’s immigrant workforce comes after a two-year battle with the LePage administration over providing welfare benefits to noncitizens, many of whom are seeking asylum here and are prohibited from working for months. Asylum seekers often rely on city and state aid, although Gov. Paul LePage has tried to cut off state funding to the noncitizens.

Portland has the largest concentration of immigrants in the state, with 10,000 foreign-born residents living here in 2013, comprising 15 percent of the population, according to a report released Wednesday by Coastal Enterprises Inc., which provides business counseling and financial services. Since 2000, the growth of Portland’s immigrant community has increased the overall city population by 3 percent, even as its native-born population has declined.

The new report – “Building Maine’s Economy: How Maine Can Embrace Immigrants and Strengthen the Workforce” – suggests ways that the new arrivals can help the state, which has few young workers to replace a rapidly aging workforce.

“Folks who are coming here are bringing an incredible amount of intelligence and experience,” Strimling said.

A PROGRAM CALLED HIRE

Last spring, LePage appeared to be on the brink of a major political victory, when it seemed certain that he would finally cut off General Assistance for noncitizens, including many asylum seekers. The aid is paid for with city and state funds.

A court ruling upheld his administration’s decision to stop reimbursing Portland and other municipalities for welfare payments to noncitizens on the basis that Maine lacked a federally required law explicitly making noncitizens eligible for the voucher-based assistance program for food, clothing, housing and medications.

Meanwhile, the Legislature enacted an eligibility bill making certain noncitizens eligible to receive GA for as long as two years, and the governor mistakenly allowed it to become law by not issuing a veto within the required time frame.

The clash with the state led the city of Portland to create an emergency fund to preserve the assistance and to look closely at those receiving assistance. The city realized that, while hundreds of noncitizens were in fact barred under federal rules from working as they applied for asylum, there were dozens who had received federal work permits but had not found work.

“In either case, we were going to have to be very diligent to move these folks toward self-sufficiency,” said David MacLean, Portland’s social services director. “We thought we needed to get on our game in terms of tracking individuals and tracking the asylum process and applying for work authorization as soon as possible.”

As of February, the city had 357 noncitizens who were receiving General Assistance while awaiting action on an asylum application, according to the city. Of those, 150 had federal work permits, and 23 of them were employed.

With an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, Portland has achieved full employment by economic standards. But city officials realized that noncitizens face additional barriers to entering the workforce. Those barriers include lower English proficiency, foreign educational or professional credentials that are not recognized in the U.S., and a lack of resumes and work history in this country.

The city launched a program called HIRE, or Helping Individuals Regain Employment, in January. It includes a caseworker dedicated to help noncitizen GA applicants find resources needed for them to enter the workforce. Those deemed work-ready are referred to community organizations, like Portland Adult Education, for English language and other classes. Those who are not are referred to other assistance programs.

Since Jan. 1, the program has enrolled 54 new clients, the city said in a March 8 news release. Of those, 26 finished their resume, 41 had registered at Maine Job Bank, 39 were referred to RS Portland Job Alliance, and 27 were referred to Goodwill. Nine have secured a full-time job, 12 have secured part-time employment, and five have completed an application for state-funded disability.

Fernand Rembou, a 39-year-old native of Gabon on the west coast of Africa, is among those who secured full-time employment through the program.

Rembou came to the U.S. in August 2014 to seek asylum. After relying on GA for a year to pay for his housing and food, he was hired Jan. 29 as a direct support professional for Granite Bay Care, a human services agency that serves adults with disabilities in Maine and New Hampshire.

Rembou said it was “tough” to rely on state assistance, even though he participated in the city’s workfare program and did community work in exchange for the benefits. Now he is grateful to no longer needs financial assistance from the city.

“Today is the first day I am going to pay the rent for myself,” Rembou said Wednesday. “Being able to pay the rent by myself is a relief.”

Other employers to tap into the HIRE applicant pool include Bayside Nursing Home, Express Transportation, HW Staffing, and Avesta Housing.

MacLean said the city is hiring an additional case worker to extend the HIRE program to citizens.

BUSINESS PROGRAMS

Meanwhile, the city’s economic development office is using existing programs for local businesses to provide support for immigrant entrepreneurs. Those programs include financing through grants and loans, finding spaces to set up shop, and assistance with licensing and permitting.

The city and its development arm, the Portland Development Corp., have commercial loan programs that currently hold $3.6 million in assets, according to the city. The programs have 31 active loans, 13 percent of which have gone to immigrant businesses. The loans act mostly as gap financing, in which the city partners with a private lender to provide funding needed to create or expand a business.

For example, the Veranda Asian Market received $50,000 for a new supermarket on Forest Avenue. The money helped the business purchase machinery and equipment, inventory and working capital, the city said. Other immigrant-owned businesses to receive loans include the Portland Trading Co. ($15,000), Auto-Care ($32,500) and the Museum of African Culture ($15,500).

The city also has a business assistance program that provides matching grants of $10,000 for each full-time job created for low-income residents. Each business can receive a maximum of $20,000. To date, the city said, 14 businesses have received $200,000, leading to the creation of 45 jobs. One immigrant-owned business, Trims and Fade of Warren Avenue, received $10,000, the city said.

A city facade improvement program that has invested over $184,000 into improving storefronts along Congress Street is making $100,000 available to businesses along Washington Avenue and St. John Street, which have a high concentration of immigrant businesses.

Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said city staff conducted a review of resources available for immigrant businesses in October and concluded that it would be more efficient to continue partnering with private groups such as Coastal Enterprises Inc. than to create new city programs. However, that analysis only included input from community partners, Mitchell said, and staff would “absolutely” reconsider its conclusion as the city embarks on a public process that could lead to the creation of an Office for New Americans at City Hall.

“I’m very interested to hear if there are gaps or areas of work and responsibility that could and should be given some attention,” Mitchell said, noting the importance of Portland resuming its role as a seaport for cargo ships servicing Northern Europe. “The immigrant population is an important segment of the Portland community, and it’s a growing segment.”