Details have been finalized on a plan to create a new office in Portland city government charged with integrating immigrants into the community and providing more economic opportunities for people of color, young people and other populations facing employment challenges.

The proposal to create the Office of Economic Opportunity was forwarded to the City Council on Tuesday night with a unanimous recommendation from the city’s Economic Development Committee, which has been studying the issue for eight months. The council is expected to take up the proposal on Dec. 19.

The office would try to improve coordination, communication and collaboration with existing community service providers, collect data, connect immigrant workers with employers, increase internship opportunities and find ways to address challenges immigrants face – such as improving English proficiency – when trying to find jobs.

The office would focus on bringing together dozens of service providers, educational institutions and businesses to match available resources to the community’s needs, while plugging gaps in service.

“What we’re trying to do is show we are a welcoming community and that we want to be a convener and collaborator in the community,” said City Councilor David Brenerman, who leads the economic committee. “(The city is) not going to help somebody find a job specifically, but we may link you to a service provider in the community who can help you find a job.”

The office comes with an annual price tag of $260,000 and would be staffed by a director, who would report directly to the city manager, and two program managers. One program manager would focus on the immigrant population, while the other would work with people of color and young people. The city expects to fund most of the program through grants.

Creating such an office was a shared goal of City Manager Jon Jennings, Mayor Ethan Strimling and the entire council. More than 60 other cities in the U.S. have similar offices. Strimling commended the committee’s in-depth study of the issue and its proposal.

“I’m very pleased with the direction they’re going,” Strimling said. “Getting the bones in place is the most important piece. I think they’ve done very good work.”

Portland has long been a city of immigrants, dating to its earliest days. More recently, it has been the destination for African refugees and asylum seekers escaping dangerous situations at home. Refugees typically have to wait years in camps before they are brought to the U.S. by an official agency, whereas asylum seekers arrive legally with visas and then apply for political asylum.

Of Portland’s 66,000 residents, nearly 4,800 are black or African American, 2,250 are Hispanic or Latino and 2,500 are Asian, according to 2015 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In October, Portland’s preliminary unemployment rate was 2.6 percent, compared to the statewide unemployment rate of 3.4 percent, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

There are currently 495 asylum seekers and refugees with federal authorization to work who rely on General Assistance to make ends meet, according to city officials. Of those, 95 have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“We have to figure out how to translate that experience into better jobs for this community,” Brenerman said.

The office was originally intended to focus exclusively on immigrants – or new Mainers – since they often face a different set of hurdles when entering the workplace, whether it’s improving language skills, securing transportation or using educational degrees or certifications from their home countries to advance themselves in Portland’s economy.

Over the last eight months, however, the committee drafted plans for a more inclusive office that also would serve the American-born children of immigrants, people of color and young people.

“My concern is really for young people – regardless of hue,” said the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, who advocated for a more inclusive office. “I think it’s important that we’re intentional in engaging under-served populations and populations that have not been included in economic opportunities in Portland to include people of color, youth and adults, as well as our immigrant population.”

Tae Chong, an advocate for immigrants and refugees for more than 20 years, said these groups are key to growing the local economy, given Maine’s shifting demographics toward more retirees and fewer young people to fill skilled jobs. Chong said that roughly half of the U.S. population of young adults is multicultural, and the city and state need to do everything they can to welcome and integrate them into the workforce.

Without immigrants, Portland’s population and its school enrollment would be declining, he said.

“There’s the future right there,” Chong said. “In the new economy, everyone is competing for skilled workers. Without skilled workers you don’t have an economy.”

Claude Rwaganje, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and came to the U.S. in 1996, now heads a financial nonprofit and is encouraged that the city is on the verge of creating the new office. However, he warned that it will not be sustainable without a long-term commitment from local businesses.

“I am very pleased to be where we are at this point in Portland,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings


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