It’s only been a week since the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development delivered a strategic plan that aims to grow Maine’s workforce by 75,000 people over the next decade.

A big piece of that would come by welcoming immigrants: “In a global economy, Maine must attract the best talent from all corners of the world,” the report’s authors wrote. “Above all, Maine must be known by new Americans across the United States as the most effective state to find a meaningful job that matches their career aspirations with their prior skills. This includes providing the transitional supports (e.g., English language learning, training) that can distinguish Maine from other states.”

Maine has such an opportunity right now in the city of Portland. More than 600 asylum-seeking families have come to the city since June, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries after arduous journeys through Central America to our southern border. There is space for the 90 or so people who have arrived in recent days in an emergency overnight shelter, but there is no place for them during the day, and many of the new arrivals are not equipped to spend their days outside in the middle of a Maine winter.

The city and its regional partners are scrambling to accommodate people in deep need, but they should not be doing it on their own. Welcoming immigrants and helping them find housing and other services should be a matter of state policy. It’s not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, but it’s also in our long-term economic interest. Welcoming immigrants is so important that it is identified in our latest economic development strategic plan.

Asylum-seeking refugees may not look like the answer to Maine’s workforce shortfall, but in the long run, they are an important piece of the puzzle. But before they can contribute, they need a place to get in out of the cold, food to eat and support going through an arcane legal process in a backlogged federal immigration court system. While they wait for their applications for asylum to be recognized by the courts – and for months after – these people are not allowed to work, and they need support.

The Mills administration knows this and has stepped up. Last summer, it changed General Assistance eligibility rules that denied aid to newly arrived asylum seekers so Portland taxpayers wouldn’t have to foot the entire bill for the programs on their own. That help has been welcome but it is not enough.

Portland’s city government and a network of nonprofit agencies have not shied away from this challenge. City Manager Jon Jennings has rightly called on the state government to do i’s part.

“The real critical need is for the governor to intervene from the leadership perspective,” Jennings said. “This is not just a Portland issue. It’s a regional issue.”

The new state economic strategic plan makes the case for helping immigrants who want to come here and contribute to our communities. The influx of asylum seekers is an opportunity to put the plan into action.

 

 

 

 


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